Sunday, March 25, 2012
Don't Kill Your TV
TV goes back into the mist of my memory. I am on the younger end of the first generation of people in the U.S. who have never known life without television. To those of us in that generation and younger, the TV is as much an integral part of a household as a stove or refrigerator. I suppose that, in a similar way, kids today are the first generation to have never known life without a computer.
I owe a lot to television. It really gave me a jump start on things. As a young child with two infant siblings, the TV was a convenient distraction my mother could set me in front of for periods of time on days when going outside to play was not workable. The first set I remember seemed huge to me, but was probably only about a 24” screen. It had a very large and clunky dial for changing the channels, and when you turned it off, a tiny white dot remained in the middle of the screen for nearly a minute afterward. That dot intrigued me, and the memory of it still does. The set took about 30 seconds to warm up, and as a kid I remember how long those 30 seconds seemed, when you could hear something exciting on the TV, but it wouldn’t let you see it yet. Patience wasn’t my strong suit, then or now.
We didn’t have a lot of channel selections back then, just the three major American networks (no Fox yet), public broadcasting and two Canadian networks. Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, The Electric Company and Sesame Street were my shows, especially Sesame Street. All four were solidly in the “educational programming” category, so I don’t think I was any worse for wear by my devoted viewing of them. And when I wasn’t watching TV, I was running around like a bat out of hell, so I was not short of any physical activity either.
Sesame Street was my favorite of them all. It was on twice a day on PBS (at breakfast time and just before dinner), and once on one of the Canadian channels (right around lunch time). And I watched all three episodes, five days a week before I was in school. By the time I got into kindergarten, I could read, write and count in three languages. The Canadian version of Sesame Street taught French, just like the American version taught Spanish. I couldn’t tie my shoes or eat without getting food in my hair, but man, I was literate!
Of course with so many academic hurdles already jumped, I found kindergarten a bit dull, like watching reruns. Consequently, I tended to make my own fun, much as I still do today. The difference is, I was not very subtle about it, and nearly drove my kindergarten teacher out of her mind. Those were the days before Ritalin or academic enrichment programs. My misadventures in school are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that Mrs. McLaughlin is still around, and even after all these years I still have a very hard time looking her in the eye after the run for her money that I gave her.
Captain Kangaroo was great too. His show had been around for decades before me. When I watched in the early 70s, he was like the crazy old grandfather everyone wanted but no one really had. His puppet buddies Mr. Moose and Bunny cracked me up, especially when they dropped a whole raft of ping pong balls on his head. I was nearly 7 before I realized ping pong balls were used for anything other than humiliating beloved TV characters.
He had human friends too. Mr. Green Jeans and Baxter were always stopping by. Mr. Green Jeans always wore the same pair of, well, green jeans, and was vaguely presented as a kind of farmer/handyman/sage. Baxter was one of the few African-American men in mainstream children’s programming at that time. He too was a vaguely defined character. I remember him wearing cream-colored sweaters, sometimes eyeglasses, and coming across as an academic of some sort. After I got a bit older, creepy Slim Goodbody joined the cast. He wore a body stocking with internal organs painted on it and kept pushing his preachy message about food that I hated. Creepy and preachy. Major turn-off, then and now.
Sidenote: Captain Kangaroo’s show started at 7:00 every morning on CBS, and there was a huge controversy when the network pushed it back so they could start “The CBS Morning News” at 7 to compete with “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America”. Kids across the country were in an uproar, and their parents probably even more so, as that meant their hour of relative peace and quiet to drink coffee and read the newspaper from 7-8 each morning was shot to hell. The host of “The CBS Morning News” in those days was a very young Bob Schieffer, who is still working for the network. At the time, I hated him with a deep, seething passion. He was the guy who overthrew Captain Kangaroo in my mind. I still bristle a little at some subconscious level when Schieffer comes on TV. I believe that there is some credence to the idea that the CBS morning shows have historically done so poorly in the ratings because of “The Curse of Captain Kangaroo”.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was not so much about literacy as it was social skills and problem solving. I suppose it’s not much good to be able to read and write if you can’t interact in society with some degree of success. He was kind of an unusual bird in hindsight, but he was so sincere about what he did, and played an important role in the lives of many preschool kids, some of whom may not have had a lot of good models for behavior in their lives. His show was the first one I remember outgrowing, as it started to seem “babyish” to my sophisticated kindergartner mind after I started school. Mr. Rogers has been parodied heavily over the years, and it always bothered me a little, like someone making fun of your favorite uncle.
The Electric Company could best be described as groovy, psychedelic phonics lessons. The show was just entirely too cool, and appealed to me more and more as I got older. They had cheesy, live-action Spider-Man episodes, lots of bellbottom pants, afros, and Morgan Freeman. The show stuck to message though. No matter how weird it got, there was always a literacy angle to everything they did. Spider Man could be rescuing silent “e” from some masked goon or Morgan Freeman might be interviewing a diphthong with great sincerity, but there was always some reading connection there. I think it was The Electric Company that helped me see that all the reading stuff I was learning could actually be applied to fun stuff, and it was part of what led me to a lifelong love affair with books.
These shows were both a lot of fun and developmentally helpful to a very young me. Kids growing up on Spongebob are really missing out.
It wasn’t all educational programming for me though. I’ve got a future post cooking on the topic of Saturday morning cartoons in the era when they were a weekly tradition for anyone under 12.