Yet Another Journal

Nostalgia, DVDs, old movies, television, OTR, fandom, good news and bad, picks, pans,
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» Friday, June 12, 2009
Adventures in Analog
Most people my age say "childhood television" and remember a big brown wooden box. It was considered a piece of furniture, just like the big freestanding radio sets that came before it, and much care was taken in not only choosing the model of television, but the finish: light wood to match oak or birch furniture, darker to match walnut or maple.

Our earliest set, which I remember only because it sat in the basement for several years before Dad hollowed it out to make shelving units, was an Andrea television/radio unit, small screen to the left, radio with sliding tuning bar at the right. The actual set of my youth was a big dark-brown General Electric, topped by a pair of Bakelite-based "rabbit ears." It was parked next to the stairway to the attic and in later years a thick double-line of antenna cable ran down the stairs from the attic to connect to it, with the antenna mounted on the chimney. The top half was the screen, and the bottom half, covered by some roughly woven material with gold thread highlights, was the speaker. Directly under the screen was a narrow horizontal panel with one large knob covered with numbers from 2 to 13 (the tuner), and smaller brown Bakelite buttons, one to turn the monster on and off, the other two for the vertical and horizontal holds. Parents of toddlers and small children often removed the knobs and either just put them on at night when everyone was watching, or left a pliers on top of the television to change the channels (invariably if you took the knobs off they got lost and you ended up doing this anyway) via the metal knob-mount.

(Here's a 1950s GE, but it has knobs to one side of the screen, not underneath. Otherwise our TV looked a lot like this one. Check out the Andrea model on the left; ours probably looked a lot like this; not sure we had the doors.)

Today you just switch on the television (and the cable or satellite box) and there's nothing left to do, unless you still operate with rabbit ears. Back then getting a picture might involve a complicated process. First you had to get up to turn the knob to the proper channel. Remote controls existed back then, but most had long cords to attach them to the television--something called "infra-red" remotes were around, but they were all, corded or not, hideously expensive. For middle and lower class folks, there was an alternative remote control: it was called a small child. LOL.

Even when clicked to the proper channel, you might have to mess with the white or clear plastic "fine tuner" that surrounded the tuner knob. You turned it one way or the other to find the best picture. Fine-tuning frequently also involved turning the rabbit ears, extending or compressing one of the aerials, putting one up and one down, pointing them at different angles, etc., until the picture was clear. Until then, you got various degrees of "snow" (those fine particles that told you the station signal was going out of range) and skew. Occasionally the picture wouldn't stay adjusted unless you stood there at a weird angle, holding the little round ball at the tip of the antenna. If you wanted to see the program badly enough, there you stayed. Sometimes aluminum foil on the tips helped.

Invariably, either when you'd just gotten comfortable in your chair or on the sofa with some knitting or had a custard cup of ice cream in your hand, an airplane would fly over and the picture would start to roll vertically. Eventually you would have to put whatever down and mess with the vertical tuning knob. You would nudge it minimally one way or the other until the picture stopped rolling, sit down, pick up the knitting...at which point the effects of the airplane that just flew over dissipated and the picture started rolling again. Aieeee!

Only occasionally did horizontal hold button manipulation become necessary...the picture was much more likely to roll than skew sideways into jagged-edge lightning bolts, so that the screen looked as if someone on drugs was viewing it.

Both vertical roll and horizontal skew happened along with the snow when you were getting out of range of a station. Invariably this led to an upgrade of antenna. The rabbit ears on the top of the big box were exchanged for a spiky metal antenna on the roof. They came in small sizes for people who just wanted local stations, and huge outfits called "fringe antennas" that got reception for those out in the country. The antenna wire was a pair of copper leads wrapped in a flexible dark brown rubbery casing. To put the antenna on the television, there was none of this screwing in a cable nonsense. You pulled the television away from the wall and found the two small screws that were the antenna connectors. Then you took a small knife (paring knives were best) and made a slit in the rubber between the two wires as far down as you needed. Then on the tips of the two ends you now had, you slit into them gently until you exposed bare copper wire on each (it was easier if you twisted the wire as you took the rubber off, so it was neat, but you had to be careful not to break the strands) until you had enough wire exposed to wrap around the screws. (You could attach the wires to little hooks and then put the hooks around the screws, but most people just did the wire-to-screw maneuver.) If you could put on an antenna wire without cutting a finger, you had mastered it. I mastered the maneuver at twelve.

Tuning in that much-desired outdoor aerial—ohboy, more channels!—for the very first time was another trip. It invariably involved dad up on the roof, yelling down to a child on the lawn or the driveway, "Ask your mother if it's okay." Child would run to the door or the window: "Dad wants to know if it's okay." "We're getting Channel 12, but not Channel 10." Child stepped back some feet to relay this info to dad. Dad would twitch the antenna a few degrees to the right or left. "How about now?" Child returned to door or window. "How about now?" "We're getting 10 and 12, but not 6." Back went the child: "Mom says we're getting 10 and 12, but not 6." Twist. "How about now..." Always there was one channel, often the one with mom's favorite series or dad's favorite sports broadcast, whose broadcast tower was on a 90-degree angle from all the other stations. You either put up with the fuzzy picture in order to get a brilliant picture on the other ten channels, or you finally gave up and invested in an antenna rotor, which motorized the aerial and was controlled by a box on the television with a big knob that pointed to all directions on the compass. When it moved the knob lit up and the gadget let out a god-awful thumping noise which led to the instruction "bump that thing over to Channel 6, will ya?" and then later "bump it back to Channel 10."

The back of one of these old televisions were almost as interesting as the front. The rear was covered with some sort of thick, unbendable board that was rough-woven like fine burlap on one side and smooth on the other. There were evenly-spaced holes in it so the heat from inside the television could vent. The rear of the big picture tube stuck out of the middle of this board, covered by some dark hard plastic. If you undid the screws in each corner, you could take the backing off the television and see its innards: not circuit board like today, but rows of little tubes that looked like elongated light bulbs marching in short columns. If you were semi-knowledgable in electronics and something went wrong with the television, you could take out the appropriate tube and bring it to any hardware store, where they had racks of little replacement tubes. Failing that, it was a call to the television repairman. Back then there was one on almost every streetcorner.

Mid-1960s televisions had something called "the red button" (nice technical term!) in the rear. Pressing the red button was something reserved for catastrophe. If you turned on the television and the sound or picture, or sometimes both, didn't appear, you pressed the red button. It was some type of reset button, not unlike rebooting the computer today when Windows locks up, and often it worked. Of course (go figure), the repair we did most often on our annoying Magnavox (successor to the GE) was repair of the red button itself, which shorted out at inopportune times.

In the early 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission passed a ruling that all new televisions had to have a UHF tuner (channels 14 through 83) along with the VHF one (2-13). (There never was a "Channel 1." The frequencies contained within it were used for police radios.) So when we junked the beloved GE in 1964 (Dad took the innards out of that one, too, making Mom some shelving near the washing machine to hold her detergents) and got the Magnavox I always hated, we gained a UHF dial. This one operated differently than the VHF dial, in that, instead of clicking from channel to channel, it turned freely, leaving you to tune in various channels by minute manipulation of the knob. It was common while watching a UHF station for a long period of time to have the channel "slip" and you had to go back to the tuner and feather-flick it to get it back on signal.

Everything interfered with television pictures in those days, whether you were on rabbit ears or outside aerial. If Mom was using the blender or Dad the drill you would see a horizontal line or dots running across the screen. Sometimes even the sound would hum. If the guy next door was using a big electric drill to do some woodworking, you might get the same effect, if a bit fainter. When airplanes flew over the picture faded in and out and shimmied for several seconds. For a long time we received police calls on one of the channels, over the soundtrack of whatever program was on.

If two channels were close to each other, like Channels 36 and 38, the stronger of the two channels might cause "ghosting" on the weaker one. You would see an off-framed faint image of the stronger channel superimposed on the picture you were watching. In certain weather, you might not even be able to make out the weaker station for this "ghost."

The neatest phenomenon was something called a "skip image." The television signals, sown over a large area, would hit reflective areas in the atmosphere (ionosphere?) and "skip," often to areas way beyond their intended range. This began with AM radio, and it wasn't surprising during certain atmospheric conditions (like snowstorms) to be able to hear Chicago radio stations in New England. (On one memorable occasion Dad turned on the car radio at 9 p.m. during our vacation in Williamsburg, VA, and was receiving WBZ from Boston.) But skip images on television were less common and it was always a cool thing when you got them. We were too far out of range of the CBS station in Hartford, CT, to regularly watch it, but one memorable summer Saturday evening I managed to watch an entire episode of Mannix, which was being pre-empted on the Providence and Boston stations (naturally it was the second part of a two-part story), via the Hartford channel on a much-welcome skip. The coolest one was on the morning of a snowstorm when I made out some twisted, fuzzy, soundless images of The Phil Donohue Show on Channel 3. No station in the New England area showed Donohue at that time and I was surprised as all get-out when for mere seconds a station logo came up out of the static-clotted television screen for a Miami, FL, station!

It was actually possible to wake up in those days to nothing on television. Nowadays stations just stay on all night, filling hours with programs shilling for useless exercise items, appliances, and geegaws. Back then TV stations came on in the morning. First there would be snow, then the infamous test pattern. In the black-and-white era you might get lucky and see the famous Indian head test pattern. Many stations had their own test patterns, with their own logo and a photo of a station personality. Then usually a man would announce the beginning of the station's broadcast day. He might use their call letters, even their frequency, and state the station's ownership. Next you might have a prayer and/or the National Anthem, before seguing into a farm report, early news, a children's program. At night the reverse happened: after the last credits of the last program rolled, you had the national anthem played over some film of a flag flapping the breeze, and the announcer intoning "This ends our broadcast day." The station usually signed off with a high-pitched hum that made you hastily turn the sound down before it went to noisy snow.

Today that all passes forever. Now more than ever, you sit in a chair and grab something about the size of a deck of cards, but twice as long. You press a button. The television comes on and you watch in comfort. If the program coming up isn't a favorite, you use the remote control to change the channel. Even the folks left with dials and buttons will have to use the remote to access their converter boxes. No skip images, no ghosting, no snow, no electrical interference, no rolling, no skew. Kids will never know the trouble we had tuning in the beast...

...or all the fun.

"This ends our analog broadcast  day era."

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