Media Moment: Watching TV: Then vs. Now

Media Moment: Watching TV: Then vs. Now

Ellen Holtzman Esq. is a nonprofit consultant based out of Philadelphia and is a mother of three.

Lost in Space, Gilligan’s Island, and The Dating Game. Those were my top three shows aired on channels 2, 4 and 7. The routine was easy yet inflexible. Ten minutes before the start of the show, comfortably seat yourself smack in the middle of the couch, directly in front of the TV, with drinks and snacks sufficient to last thirty minutes or until the first commercial break. Claim the space around you on the couch by strategically placing your snacks on the other cushions to ward off family members who may have a different show in mind. Deter any conversations they may try to start in those 30 minutes about my shoebox book report due the next day or the whereabouts of my Brownie uniform (youngest section of the Girl Scouts). Turn the television set on 7 minutes before the start of the show to fiddle with the antennae to ensure perfect reception, and finally settle in.

This is what it was like to watch a TV show in 1968. No showing up late since the show started exactly on time. Unless, of course, there was a national emergency cancelling your show. If the phone rang during the show, it was an agonizing decision whether or not to answer the phone and miss part of the show. The problem was that there was no ‘pause’ button or a ‘rewind’ to watch the parts you missed. And if you did choose to answer the phone and miss a few minutes of the show, you most likely had to wait an entire year, sometimes two, for the episode to air again when the show went into reruns. On the other hand, if you didn’t answer the call, there was no way to know who was trying to reach you or if it was someone you wanted to speak to. So, you crossed your fingers and hoped for no interruptions or decision- making, just enjoyment.

The only highly anticipated TV-related decision was whether to ask your mom to buy Lucky Charms, the ‘magically delicious’ breakfast cereal, or the new Shake-a-Puddin’. Only one treat could be added to the existing shopping list, and my choice usually depended on the commercials. The cartoon magician with the twinkling marshmallow bits I had seen last week was compelling. But so were the teens dancing and shaking their containers of chocolate powder and milk, which transformed into the most delicious chocolate pudding imaginable by the end of the song. I had to be careful to make the right choice. The Bugles snack from last week’s grocery expedition turned out to be greasy and bland, and the Fruit Loops recommended by a talking and singing toucan tasted nothing like fruit. Commercial breaks in the show were almost as important as the show itself.

Fast forward to 2020. The 32 -foot ‘smart’ TV sits perched on a table purchased for optimal viewing based on its height, depth, and ability to swivel. There are no less than four remote controls in the area, one bearing ‘Roku’, another level of complexity! After narrowing it down – one remote was battery-less and another failed to match the TV brand – I aim the remote at the TV and hold my breath as a blue light flickers followed by the appearance of a logo. Success! I press ‘guide’ and begin the laborious process of selecting a show from the huge volume of offerings. No good. I’ll be exhausted just scrolling through all the options. Then I remember the button with the tiny microphone icon activated by my voice request. Should I rewatch the last episode of Shrill? Bring on a new show? If so, which one? So many choices. Too many choices!

I decide to watch an episode of the Marvelous Mrs. Mazel even though it’s a show my husband and I watch together, reminiscing about the Catskills. The deli where Marge and Suzy meet up isn’t the kosher deli we went to as kids, but it’s close enough. Sure enough, after speaking into the microphone, a view of the seasons and episodes of the Marvelous Mrs. Mazel appears on my screen. Luckily, the cursor is poised for the very next episode: Season 3 Episode 3. I happily select it and turn my attention to the show, albeit a little guiltily for not waiting to watch with my husband. “That’s okay”, I rationalize, “I’m not wearing my glasses, so I’ll probably need to watch it again to catch all the details”. Forty minutes later and three quarters of the way into the episode, my husband comes home. Rather than being upset that I’m watching without him, he is amused that I accidentally skipped to Episode 8 and had been watching the season finale!

I have personally experienced tremendous advancements in the quantity of available shows and in my ability to manage my viewing time; pausing, rewinding, and re-watching favorite episodes! Quality programming is, for me, both entertaining and a topic of conversation. I can select shows based on my mood and interests rather than be limited by a few options. There is a technical learning curve that I have yet to master but am capable of doing (fingers crossed!). And while these advancements have resulted in programming options superior to those of my childhood, I miss feeling the same degree of anticipation that I had while watching TV as a child. But I suppose, that once I finally muddle through all the technical difficulties of locating my favorite shows now, I notice a glimmer of that old excitement as I say “Marvelous Mrs. Mazel” into the tiny microphone icon on my remote.

-Ellen Holtzman
-edited by Sarah Wolfson