Tuesday, May 10TV Month 2016 - The Obscurity.
The Prevue Channel was the 8-Track cassette of Television.
For a certain period in the mid-90's, there was a sort of blind spot in TV listing technology. The Internet existed, but the amount of time it would take you to log on and search for what was playing would take no less than 30 minutes, defeating the purpose entirely. Provider-specific guides didn't exist, meaning that there wasn't just a button on your remote that would call it up. TV Guide and newspaper listings still existed, but the papers typically only covered national networks and local stuff (there was no room for cable listings), and TV Guide was already becoming an antiquated subscription magazine.
Fortunately, we had the Prevue Channel, which became the (inadvertent) most-watched network in my house.
The Prevue Channel was an automatically-updating guide of listings in your area (with ads, of course). It moved about a millimeter-per-second, so even with only basic cable, a trip around the horn would take up to 15 minutes. You also couldn't arrow forward to later in the evening; it was just 90 minute blocks at a time.
So let's say that you wanted to see what was coming up on Nickelodeon. You flip on the Prevue Channel, and SHIT, you just missed it. No rewind, no fast-forward, no help. You just had to sit and wait until Nickelodeon cycled back around so you could view the listings. Considering that this happened to me about 10 times a day, and also considering that I would simply watch it when I didn't know what else to watch, I would estimate that I took in about 10 hours of Prevue Channel a week for at least three years.
Now, we don't even think about it. 90% of everything I watch is already pre-programmed into my DVR. Channel surfing takes about two minutes for the entire evening and it feels akin to a video game; I just click around and blast everything that looks interesting with the Record button. Furthermore, when you turn on a channel, it automatically tells you what you're watching. Back in the day, you sometimes had to stick around for a few minutes (or through a commercial break) just to verify what it was that you were looking at. It seems absurd in retrospect, sort of like when sports used to be televised without constantly keeping the score on the screen. We lived like peasants, I tell you.
However, in the realm of pathetic TV viewing, nothing holds (or will ever hold) a candle to the viewing of scrambled channels.
I'm pretty sure scrambled TV doesn't exist anymore. It's either on or it's not. To the best of my knowledge, it's a remnant of the Analog Era: If there was a channel you weren't paying for, the cable company couldn't block you from it outright, but they could wreck the signal just enough so it was (relatively) unwatchable. For most of us growing up, our first experience with HBO, R-rated movies, porn and pay-per-view was a garbled-beyond-recognition feed that no doubt permanently damaged our eyesight and cerebral cortex.
The means by which one had to navigate in order to obtain adult entertainment in the pre-Internet days could fill a book that I have no interest in writing, but I'll say this. It was so tough that scrambled TV was one of the best options out there. That's how tragic it was, and how desperate we were (myself in particular).
Every once in a great while, the Television Gods would shine upon you in the form of a cable company error that would mistakenly unlock everything for you, for as long as it took them to realize it. On the extremely rare occasion that this happened, you couldn't leave your room until it was over. It was a rare gift that could (and would) be taken away at any time, and it was your duty as an American to absorb all the accidentally-obtained entertainment you could get your hands on. I always had a VCR with blank tapes on hand, just in case such a miracle would be bestowed upon me. It was like when the ATM kicks out an extra $20.
And hey, it wasn't just adult stuff. I remember watching a scrambled UFC event because I didn't have the money. I remember watching a scrambled episode of Tales From The Crypt. Even the Disney Channel was a premium channel for a while, with seasonal free previews throughout the year.
If your family paid for a Disney Channel subscription, please contact me and let me know why. It was, like, $25 a month. Absurd.
Pre-cable, there were two things that, when I saw them show up on my TV, told me it was time to go to bed. The first was the above 'Intermission' ad. It was a 30-second movie trivia spot with a weekly sponsor. I only remember getting one of these right out of the dozens I recall seeing (a difficulty rating of 2, no less). It was usually the last thing that showed up on my local NBC affiliate before signing off for the night. I used to imagine one lonely station operator hitting the 'Intermission' button and flicking the light switch that killed the power to all of NBC 26.
The other was Jack 'Windbreaker' Horkheimer (a nickname I just made up) and PBS's Star Hustler. Despite sounding filthy, Star Hustler was a usually 5-minute peek into what was going on with the (literal) stars that night, for all the sky-watching amateur astronomers out there. I just remember that it looked super weird, although I'm sure Windbreaker Jack was a good guy (and a Wisconsin native!). Wikipedia sez' that he changed the name of the show to Star Gazer in 1997 because of all the nasty Internet searches. Thaaaat sounds about right.
Damn Internet ruins everything.
TOMORROW: THE COMMERCIALS.
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