If you’re younger than, oh, 30, you won’t believe me when I say this, but watching television used to be hard.
That’s right: Television — a.k.a. TV, a.k.a. the small screen, the idiot box, the boob tube, the cathode-ray crutch (okay, I made those last few up) — wasn’t always a free-flowing, never-ending, infinitely customizable infotainment birthright. Why, when I was a lad, TV shows followed a schedule as predictable and unalterable as the tides — and as unforgiving.
If you had the misfortune of missing “The Six Million Dollar Man” episode “Return of the Death Probe, Part 1” on Jan. 22, 1978, well then, “Return of the Death Probe, Part 2” wasn’t going to make much sense on the following Sunday.
But now . . .
“Now, not only can you time-shift it yourself and watch it whenever you want, you can find it later in DVD box sets and on Netflix or Hulu and perhaps somewhat illegally on YouTube,” said Chuck Howell.
Chuck heads up what’s called the Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture at the University of Maryland at College Park, or what’s informally known as the Broadcast Archives. Its shelves in the Hornbake Library hold the history of American broadcasting, from the earliest days of radio to the television shows that grace our national hearth.
A lot of the collection is paper — memos from TV executives, annotated scripts, 50 boxes containing every single letter that newsman Howard K. Smith received from viewers — but some of it is stuff. The televisual tchotchkes include three tuned xylophone bars that when struck in order produce NBC’s signature chiming tones: bong bong BONG. There’s the head from a Michigan J. Frog costume, the cartoon-inspired mascot of the old WB network.
There’s material local to Washington, too, including memorabilia from the Pick Temple and Ranger Hal shows of the 1950s. Local TV film critic Arch Campbell has donated his papers to the Broadcast Archives. Arthur Godfrey, once among the country’s most recognizable radio and TV personalities, is everywhere. The archive has dozens of spools of thin wire that were the magnetic medium to record his radio show, which was often broadcast from his Leesburg estate.
Occasionally, old-timers who worked in TV or radio — or their children — come in, looking to find themselves in the collection. Sometimes, Chuck and his staff can locate recordings. Often, they can’t.
“A lot of times, not only do we not have it, it’s almost certain it doesn’t exist,” Chuck said. “So much of television and radio, especially local, was either never recorded in the first place, because it was broadcast live, or it was recorded and was either thrown out or taped over.”
My how things have changed. Now we’re buried in TV.
As I talked TV with Chuck and his staff — sound archivist Laura Schnitker, research specialist Michael Henry and PhD candidate Jim Baxter — we thought about how the medium has changed, about how it seems impossible to just watch a TV show, how we have to tweet or Google during it, about how the nation doesn’t gather as one around the same shows as it once did.
“It’s all part of the fragmentation of popular culture,” Chuck said. “Even shows like ‘The Walking Dead,’ which by some measure was the most popular drama/sci-fi series on TV last season, attracted a fraction of the audience that a rerun of ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ would have garnered in 1976. That’s obviously because we live in a 500-channel universe and five-billion Web site universe.”
So, when it comes to media, we’ve gained a lot, chiefly a bottomless pool of content, available on a whim. But we’ve lost something, too: a shared experience and the satisfaction that comes when acquiring something isn’t easy.
“The kids of today will never have the pleasure of sneaking out of bed at 2 in the morning to watch a movie you’ve been wanting to see for two years,” said Chuck, who is the same age as I: 51. “And the only way you can see it is to check the TV guide every week and see if somebody’s running it and then set your alarm to get you up for the late late late show, when you know you have to be at school at 7:30 the next morning, but you want to see ‘Godzilla vs. Megalon’ so badly that you’ll risk getting up and getting caught by your parents when you should be in bed asleep.
“And I did that a lot. You had to really want it back in the day.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. To watch a video of my visit to the Broadcast Archives, to which I gave my personal collection of TV show-related board games, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. And for information on visiting the collection, go to lib.umd.edu/special.