Updated: Sep 27
This post was originally published at smerconish.com
The 2018 television season is in full swing and, as eager as I am to watch a number of new and returning shows, I somewhat wish we were embarking on the 1968 TV season instead. I’m not suggesting by any means that television was better back then, as I believe we are now in the golden age of television and possibly quickly approaching the platinum age. But fifty years ago, television didn’t overwhelm your life. You went to school, came home and played or did homework, followed by a family dinner where your parents tried unsuccessfully to make you tell them about your day, and then to the living room to consume that night’s television.
Growing up in the 60s, one of the best days of the year was when TV Guide’s Fall Preview issued arrived. I would dive into the issue, devour the new show descriptions, and spend days planning out my viewing schedule for the next nine months. Sure there might be the occasional cancellation, and networks had just starting developing the idea of a second season in January, but this was essentially going to be it through May. Outside of afternoon soap operas, game shows, news, PBS and few embarrassingly dreadful local programs, the choice of viewing was limited to whatever the three networks were airing 7:30-11pm each evening. Of course, that was assuming the family’s television was available. If you were lucky enough that your parents purchased one of those new color sets, you might still have the old black-and-white somewhere in the house up for grabs.
In those Neanderthal days, a home recording device was something that only the Jetson’s had, so while there might be 10-1/2 hours of new programming each night, you could only watch 3-1/2 hours of it. Worse still, choosing which 3-1/2 hours to watch, when there could be just a single TV and 4 or more family members vying for that set, could make the dynamics of any family Thanksgiving dinner gathering look like Kumbaya in comparison. Finally, let’s remember that 1968 was possibly the height of the generational battle in this nation with the Greatest Generation meeting the Baby Boomers. How does that come into play? Sunday night pitted the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour against Bonanza. Here’s Lucy vs. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The Ed Sullivan Show against Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (and woe to you if your set was still black and white). As a teenage boy, did I need to watch The Avengers or I Dream of Jeannie? How could I choose between Diana Rigg and Barbara Eden?
Sometimes, the problem was not too much but too little. Each night of the week had one network showing a movie, either an old feature or something made for TV. That’s almost 20% of your options and would present time periods where your choice was a movie, The Outcasts or Family Affair. I did my homework early for that?
That was it.
No other channels and nothing saved for later viewing. Television in the 60s didn’t offer the plethora of choices that are available now, so why do I think fondly of those days? Because sometimes less is more. There is a lot of good television today, but there is also plenty of bad to go around. And even more that could go either way, but who has the time? Hours and hours of new shows rush past us like time-lapse photography, and we feel obligated to digest as much of it as possible. To paraphrase Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, “I couldn’t watch another thing. I’m absolutely stuffed.”
According to Deadline, counting everything from major networks to Internet streaming and everything in between, you will have the opportunity to watch the premiere of 377 shows between September and the New Year, 195 of them in September alone. We’re midway into October, and I’ve already missed more potential television than was available in the first 18 years of my life. Friends and colleagues discuss the newest must-see shows on networks I’ve never heard of or that are only available on systems that I have no clue where to access.
Facebook Watch? Shudder TV? Acorn? Rooster Teeth? I have enough trouble finding the HD version of NBC on my system, and now YouTube is a television network?
There is no longer an actual television season. Shows can premiere at any time during the year, running for six, twelve or eighteen episodes, or maybe just a special five-part second season of a show before it disappears into the ethers for another year-and-a-half hiatus. Survivor and Curb Your Enthusiasm both debuted in 2000 but one is now in its 37th season and the other will air it’s 10th. Law & Order has had six different iterations with over 1,000 episodes. There are criminals who’ve been sent away under three-strikes laws who have served less time.
In 1968, I dreamt that there would one day be a way to record everything I wanted to watch, and now I have a DVR with 500 hours of shows, a backup hard drive with another 500 hours, and a list of shows that I “must binge-watch.”. I have so much television recorded that when I sit down in front of my TV I become paralyzed, unable to decide what I should watch first.
Back in the day, one was guided in their choice by the thirty or sixty-second preview of the shows that played during the summer, the blurb in TV Guide, and most importantly, the local newspaper critic’s reviews who had the opportunity to watch every new program. If you could find one who shared your sensibilities, you were golden. For me, it was critic Marvin Kitman, who began writing about television for Newsday in 1969 and became a mentor in my goal of becoming a television writer. Unfortunately, when he stopped writing about television, he also stopped recommending shows, for as he said to me, “I didn’t watch TV before I became a TV critic and got paid to do it, why should I watch it now for free?”
Recently, however, he did give me one suggestion for my viewing which was, “Nothing is as funny on TV as what is going on in Washington,” so I’ve added news shows to my DVR.
Nowadays, my Sherpa through the vastness of television is Lea Palmieri, Director of Creative Strategy for Decider.com. Her job is to recommend the best, the newest, and what will be the most talked about shows so people like me can be in the pop culture loop. She fully understands that watching everything or even a sizeable percentage of everything is impossible, and one has to create their own system for deciding what to watch. For Lea, she told me the decision comes down to “the streaming planets aligning with a creator or actor who has a new project available on an accessible platform, that looks like something I might enjoy, and fits into my time budgeted for viewing and matches up with my current mood.”
Of course, like Marvin, she gets paid to watch, and I need a simpler system, so I’ve narrowed down the world programming into three categories for recording
1. The ones I like and try to keep up with
2. The ones that sound interesting or have a lot of buzz, but I’m not going to become invested
in them until I see the final numbers from the outlying precincts
3. The ones that I’m not interested in, but are getting some buzz and come up in meetings
where people love to discuss, compare and trash shows that they aren’t involved in, and I
might have to be able to quickly get up to speed
That’s a lot of TV that is piling up like dirty laundry in a dorm room, which is why my greatest joy in life now is when I hear that a show has been cancelled and I can delete it from my DVR. When ABC cancelled Timeless last year, I rejoiced, but before I could delete it from my DVR, they reneged on that promise and renewed it, spiraling me into a depression that lasted for weeks. They cancelled the series again this June, but in July the announced a two-hour movie this December to wrap the series up, so, until that time, it sits on my hard drive, beckoning me every time I scroll through the recorded inventory. Designated Survivor was a series that made my first list, but which I fell seriously behind in, and when ABC cancelled it I figured there was no reason to get caught up, that was until Netflix announced they were going to produce another season to be aired sometime in 2019. It’s easier to kill a vampire with a stake than to be free of cancelled shows.
The worst part of this abundance of possibilities is that when my wife and I finally do carve out a little time to just sit on the couch and watch one of these shows, we wind up sitting there silently, scrolling through hundreds of hours of programming, until one of us finally decides that there’s really nothing to watch. At which point we go out to the movies because after all, the Academy Award season is fast approaching, and we’re way behind in what we’ve seen.