I am a member of a generation of Americans who remembers when there were only three TV channels. When I was elementary school, in the 1970s, not only did ABC, CBS and NBC dominate prime time, their programs were prime time.
My kids think this is funny – if not incredible. When I’ve told them about only having three channels, they inevitably ask, “What did you watch?” – as if, with a mere three channels, there would be nothing on. I answer, obviously, “We watched something that was on one of those channels.”
It wasn’t all bad. With three channels, there was a one-in-three chance that whoever you were talking to about what was on TV last night watched the same thing you did – The Six Million Dollar Man, Welcome Back Kotter, M*A*S*H. Television viewing was also a much more shared experience at home too – we, like most families at that time, only had one TV. So if you wanted to watch anything at all, you watched whatever your parents wanted to watch – because they decided which of the three channels would be on your one TV that night.
Still, we never felt that there was nothing on. Indeed, the fact that there was something on was the reason we gathered in the family room after dinner to watch. And when John Boy Walton’s house nearly burned to the ground up on Walton Mountain, we were riveted.
I find there is not nearly as much to watch on TV nowadays, even with more than 100 channels. Sure, some shows command what passes for a sizeable audience – American Idol, Dancing with the Stars – but even if I were to watch one of those (and I’ve never watched either) there is a much smaller chance that whoever I might be talking to watched the same thing on TV last night that I did.
Nor do I find what’s on TV today to be particularly compelling. It’s no secret that reality TV is popular among network programmers because it is cheap to produce and there is seemingly no shortage of ordinary folks willing to play reality stars. But watching drunk twenty-somethings fight about how they were wronged by their roommates – with nearly every other word bleeped out – is not entertaining.
The truth is today I watch very little TV, probably only two to three hours per week (SEC football games on Saturday notwithstanding); there are no shows I make a point to watch every week. And, even with all of the choices on TV today, most the scant viewing I do is limited to about three channels. Today those three are cable networks instead of the Big 3 broadcast networks, but that’s enough for me.
I suppose I might watch more TV if I had more time. Though maybe not. The problem is, I’ve got 100 channels but there’s nothing on.