Thursday, May 5TV Month 2016 - The UHF Dial.
All I knew was that it was the second knob on the TV.
UHF was the AM to VHF's FM (this is not a technical assessment in the least). Not a lot there, but the signal was stronger. In the Fox Cities, our VHF stations were CBS 2, ABC 5 and NBC 11. Our UHF stations were FOX 26, WXGZ/WACY 32 (which would eventually morph into the UPN/WB/CW Network) and PBS 38. That's it, homies. Also, there wasn't a set of weather circumstances perfect enough on our Earth to allow all 6 stations to come in at once. It never once happened in my lifetime. You didn't watch what was on as much as you watched what came in.
The old TV knobs were deceptive to a child like me. Why did the VHF knob go up to 13 and the UHF all the way to 88 if we didn't actually have those channels? Just to make sure, I would periodically sweep through the dial late at night, in the event a new channel showed up that nobody bothered to tell me about. I didn't know how it worked.
Back to reception, that was the biggest game-changer for me when analog permanently switched to digital. The channel simply worked or it did not. Back in the day, you could only watch channels if they came in with your antenna. If the weather was shitty, you couldn't watch the show; simple as that. Sometimes you'd have to hold the antenna while standing in front of the TV for the entire duration of the show. Like I said yesterday, if you missed a show in the pre-DVR days, there was a certain chance that you may never see it again. Or at least wait until the Summer when everything reset.
This was how FOX started in my market, as a second-rate UHF channel. Mostly syndicated reruns, then a smattering of new programming, culminating with some of the biggest and longest-running shows in history (Simpsons, Cops, America's Most Wanted). Then, less than five years later, they bought the rights to the NFL, and they were on the outside looking in no more. FOX went from UHF to the biggest television network in the world.
My UHF channel of choice was WXGZ, 'Super' 32. It was a paradise of obscure programming and locally-produced shows. We even had competing clowns (Cuddles and Oscor, respectively).
The footage is lost to the Internet, but my cousin and I were guests on Oscor's Sunday morning show in 1988. The theme of the episode was Thanksgiving, and Oscor was asking all of the kids in attendance what Thanksgiving meant to us. As the kids humiliated themselves one-by-one, I am clearly heard in the background making fun of every single one of them (we had a VHS tape of the broadcast). I was a smartass, but not smart enough to realize the microphone was picking up my every word.
By the time Oscor got to me and asked what I thought of Thanksgiving, I froze up and replied with "I don't know." That's what Karma looks (and feels) like, kids. I turfed out hard, and I deserved every bit of it.
Today, so much of Adult Swim's non-animated programming has been influenced in some way by these sorts of channels, and for good reason. The potential for comedy is abundant. I don't want this to sound mean, but there are few things funnier than when someone pours their heart into something and...just fails. I don't like movies that are bad for the sake of being bad. I don't particularly like TV comedies that attempt to recreate the original cringe of Public Access. It's artificial. It has to be genuine to be funny, and therein lies the textbook tragedy of Comedy. Someone with only the best of intentions has to take a pie to the face.
Local TV also brought us a slew of Horror Hosts. This, to me, was one of my favorite parts of 80's and 90's television. Our guy was Ned The Dead, and he was friggin' fantastic.
I love the loose and (what felt like) unscripted nature of this kind of TV. Ned was all over the board, talking with faceless producers off-camera, never cutting to the film when he was supposed to, just totally winging it at 1 in the morning to an audience of nearly none. They took advantage of un-purchased air time and a tape library full of public domain stinkers, and created something fun. This was exactly how Mystery Science Theater 3000 began, and I still can't get enough of it.
Local networks, for better or for worse, had that personal touch, and that resonated with a kid like me who wanted to make mediocre entertainment for the world. Sort of like Punk Rock, Local TV showed me that this sort of ability was within my reach. 20 minutes from my house, someone was filming a show in the basement of a studio, and it would air on my TV just a few hours later. That not only made me feel connected, but inspired.
I should see if I still have that Oscor the Clown tape.
TOMORROW: THE PROGRAMMING BLOCK.
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