Tuesday, May 3

TV Month 2016 - The Big Ugly Dish.

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I miss channel surfing. I miss not knowing.

I miss not knowing what was on TV. Just lazily going around the horn a million times and finding random snippets of things you'd otherwise never see. To a younger generation, it might seem strange to long for a time when technology was lacking, but there was always a certain satisfaction of discovery in these channel surfing moments. Sort of like browsing through a video store or flipping through compact discs for hours at a time. This was the only way to find new things. No algorithms, no Season Pass, no robot-created playlist that inadvertently makes your circle of media more and more homogenized.

For me in particular, I wasn't always even looking for something I would enjoy as a consumer. Some nights, I was merely looking for something I had never seen before. And in 1995, my wishes were extravagantly fulfilled when we got a Big Ugly Dish.

In the 80's, the C-Band Dish (known as the Big Ugly Dish by nerdball historians) was the only game in town outside of cable, especially if you lived out in the country like I did. With the advent of mini-dishes like DirecTV and Dish Network, B.U.D's eventually became a relic, although they still maintain a cult following of obscure techies who maintain and service them.

Like I said, we got our B.U.D. in 1995, which was so late in the game for this hardware that I was actually surprised people were still selling them. I was just happy to have 500 channels though, so I didn't ask questions. It was the perfect balance of futuristic and antiquated. For example, we indeed had hundreds of channels from all over the world, but only 1 channel could be watched at any time on any TV throughout the house.

Think about that. As a 13-year old boy with a world of Premium channels at my fingertips, I couldn't view anything without it showing up on every other TV in the house. It was like the family telephone; if one person was using it, nobody else could, unless they just wanted to eavesdrop.

Also, the B.U.D. physically moved around. You had to remember that, back in the day, there were dozens of satellites in the air that carried a certain amount of data (or channels, if you will). Each satellite had a name (A5, G1, M2, etc.), and we were given a massive grid that showed us every satellite we had access to, and every channel that was located on each of them.

So, let's say I was watching MTV on Satellite G5, Channel 10. If I wanted to watch HBO, which was located on G5, Channel 16, I could just flip the remote control like anyone would typically do. But if I wanted to watch The Box (an MTV competitor at the time), I would consult the (paper) guide to remind me that it was on Satellite A1, Channel 24. This meant I needed to enter a separate menu, punch A1 into the keypad, look out my window and watch the satellite slowly move to link up with Satellite A1. This took anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on where this satellite was in our solar system.

Each month, our family would get a magazine in the mail called Orbit. It was a TV Guide for C-Band owners, and was about 300 pages, containing nearly every channel, satellite and guide configuration you could imagine. When the latest issue of Orbit arrived in my mailbox, I was so excited. As soon as Friday and Saturday night rolled around, I would go through the guide page by page, staying up all night to see what was playing...on every channel on Earth.

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You think I'm kidding, but it's essentially true. Another thing about C-Band: It was goddamn anarchy.

You had your basic and premium cable channels, just like you would do now with cable or satellite. You would also have foreign broadcasts, which allowed me to see what was going on in not only Latin America, but Russia, Japan, even Dubai. There were pay-per-view options the world over, and hardcore pornography by the truckload.

A quick word on porn, which is something I don't think I've ever said on the CDP before. I think there were legal issues with pornography in America at this time, which is probably why you could only get softcore stations (Playboy, Spice) through cable providers. On C-Band, however...not the case. Adam and Eve, Exxxtasy, AdulTV, a whole universe of channels I had never heard of before, and whose advertisements have been permanently seared into my brain for the remainder of my existence.

But there was so much more.

Do you know what a 'Wild Feed' is?

These things straight-up don't exist anymore, at least in a capacity where a random shmuck in his living room can view it with no effort whatsoever. The satellite grid was massive and unlocked; all chips were on the table at all times for anyone to watch. This meant (and I'm paraphrasing) that as soon as a network flipped their switch, the feed was available to view if you happened to be on the channel they were using as a 'pre-air.'

Stumbling across a wild feed was like finding a TV Unicorn. You weren't supposed to see it, anything could happen, it was live and you would more than likely never see it again. This goes back to my love of channel surfing and not knowing; every once in a while you strike gold. There was even a 1992 documentary that was loosely based around footage obtained from these feeds.

(Parodied wonderfully by The Simpsons, as you would assume.)

Another bygone byproduct of C-Band anarchy: Anyone could buy a channel if they had enough money. Pastor Gene Scott and his wife purchased so much airtime in the 80's and 90's that his signal is still floating out in the ether of C-Band and shortwave communication. As a kid, it always looked like he was speaking live, 24/7, around the clock. It wasn't until I started researching him that I realized he probably was.

It would seem counterproductive that a technology so vast and random would make me feel so connected with the outside world, but it did. On the other side of my bedroom was a computer that now allowed me to create AOL Buddy Lists and chat nightly with friends and strangers the world over, but it just wasn't the same for me. The sound of a modem dialing up certainly reminds me of the early connection I made with new technology, but not as much as the sound of our Big Ugly Dish slowly spinning in the backyard at 2 in the morning.

While I certainly have a soft spot for nostalgia, I'm not a 'good old day' goon who refuses to accept modern advances merely because I don't understand them. My house hums with modern technology, and I'm a more connected, poorer man because of it. It's more about the feeling of new discovery. When technology changes and expands, there's typically a brief era in the very beginning where it seems like anything can happen. We don't know where it's going to go, but for the time being, we just hop on board and see where it takes us.

C-Band and the Big Ugly Dish faded into obscurity. My DirecTV receiver gives me more entertainment than I could ever handle, but because of how differently we watch Television now, the sense of new discovery is all but gone. I watch what's in my queue. My guide filters channels I don't want. Hell, most of my generation has abandoned TV altogether in favor of cheaper streaming models. I get it; you just want to watch what you like. The idea that one night you'd stumble upon a channel you didn't know existed just can't be a reasonable expectation anymore.

But at one point, it was, and it was freaking awesome.



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