Friday, May 6

TV Month 2016 - The Programming Block.

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There isn't a streaming service on the planet that can replicate the Programming Block. Whether this matters to you is irrelevant.

Yeah, we've got user-created and curated playlists. We've got gapless season binge-watching. But for a child of the 80's and 90's, the Programming Block was a chance to put the remote down and settle in for an evening of entertainment wrapped in a nice, demographically-branded package. A time to change into your pajamas, gather a couch full of snacks and settle in with the only friend that will never betray you and force you to stab them to death behind the pet food store on Christmas Eve, Television.

Related shows, custom bumpers and theme music, sometimes a guest host; really a TV network within a TV network for those 2-3 hours a week. It was comforting in a way, especially if you were a fan of every show in the block. And if you weren't? Well...that was the point of the block. Put enough popular, similar shows around a struggling one and pray that the rising tide will float every boat equally.

Here were a few.

The Disney Afternoon (Syndicated) - 1990-1994

This was the first block that I really became a part of. Every day after school, I'd run down my driveway as fast as I could to see as much of The Disney Afternoon as possible. Due to me living in the middle of nowhere, I was typically the last one off of the bus, making it impossible to ever see the first show of the block. Luckily, Disney did something neat by adding a new series every season and pushing all of the older shows up a half-hour.

Shows Included:
Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers
Darkwing Duck
Goof Troop

Shows like Darkwing Duck and DuckTales were legitimately great, boasting animation awards, feature films and theme songs that most of us know by heart. Even though it wasn't on Saturday morning, The Disney Afternoon was a children's programming staple for millions of kids in my generation. And hey, speaking of Saturday morning...

CBS Kids (CBS) - 1988-1994

What an eclectic mix of programming in the late 80's/early 90's CBS Saturday Block. Saturday mornings in the early 90's were jam-packed with goodness on all three major networks, so having the schedule down was an absolute must in order to catch all of the best stuff. Getting up at 5am didn't hurt, either.

Shows Included:
Garfield and Friends
Hey Vern, It's Ernest!
Muppet Babies
Pee-Wee's Playhouse
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

First, you had Garfield and Friends, which was two shows in one (remember U.S. Acres?). Hey Vern, It's Ernest! was one of those shows that adults seemed to understand a bit more than their kids did (even if in hindsight, it was annoying as hell). Muppet Babies was, looking back, fairly surreal (with one of the best theme songs ever). Pee-Wee's Playhouse was nothing short of revolutionary, and TMNT was (and is again) possibly the most popular children's cartoon of my generation.

Must-See TV (NBC) - 1984-2004

Moving out of animation-based programming and into primetime network stuff, we have the long-running 'Must-See Thursday' block on NBC. Even though it technically existed into 2014 with shows like The Office, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation at the helm, the block 'officially' ended in 2004 and was scrapped outright last year.

Shows Included:
Will and Grace
Mad About You

Top of the Rock is an excellent oral history of the 'Must-See TV' block from its origins to evolution to NBC's eventual tanking and rebirth. Definitely something you should check out if you're a weirdo that reads books about TV like I do.

TGIF (ABC) - 1986-2000

This is as good of a definition of 'Programming Block' as I can think of. Two hours, every Friday night, nothing but comedy, hosted bumpers, a theme song specifically for the block, and some really classic television programs to boot. It may have waned in the later years, and a lot of these shows certainly don't hold up to save their fictional lives, but that's not really the point, is it?

Shows Included:
Full House
Perfect Strangers
Step By Step
Family Matters
Boy Meets World

What I remember most about this block was that it was a 'family' block, which meant that the whole house got together and sat in front of the television, which I was quite fond of. I unapologetically loved Full House, and you may recall I loved Fuller House quite a bit as well.

SNICK (NICK) - 1992-1999

SNICK had it all. The big orange couch. The Saturday night timeslot. The feeling that you were in on something really special; something that was made just for you. The '166 hours' closing always bummed me out, as it reminded me that Sunday was tomorrow and I'd have to prepare for another week of school, but for those few hours, SNICK made everything better.

Shows Included:
Clarissa Explains It All
Ren and Stimpy
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
The Adventures of Pete and Pete
All That

The Ren and Stimpy phenomenon was completely justified, The Adventures of Pete and Pete makes me warm like a shot of whiskey, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? was legitimately scary at times; even more so than Tales From The Crypt on its best nights. It's a shame I never got the chance to start up that Midnight Society like I wanted to. If I did it now, I'd probably get arrested.

Toonami (Adult Swim) - 1997-2008, 2012-Present

I wasn't on board for the original iteration of Toonami, but when it returned in 2012, I couldn't have been happier. Then (and still) the only Anime block on American television, Toonami continues a long tradition of first-run Japanese shows, along with turning US audiences on to Anime classics of the generation prior.

Shows Include:
Dragon Ball Z
Cowboy Bebop
Ghost In The Shell
Attack On Titan

If you happen to be up at midnight/11pm Central this Saturday, come livetweet Toonami with me. It'll be fun.


Thursday, May 5

TV Month 2016 - The UHF Dial.

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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.


Wednesday, May 4

TV Month 2016 - The Premium.

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There was a time, not too long ago, where entertainment was still sort of an exclusive privilege.

The models still exist in different ways: Netflix, Spotify, Hulu and so on. But once file sharing hit the web, the walls between entertainment and fan were never the same again. Before that, if you wanted to see something, chances are you know...had to pay for it. Thievery was possible, but far more difficult, with the stakes much higher.

It was so much more than piggybacking on a friend's password or hitting up the Pirate Bay. Stealing cable meant either the literal thievery of a pirated box, or slipping money to an underhanded technician who could work some magic atop a telephone pole. Hardware needed to exchange hands, and the cable/dish companies did not screw around. Police would, and I'm not making this up, patrol neighborhoods looking for signs of illegal hookups. There was even a channel that Dish Network had on their network that could only be viewed by those who were retrieving their signal illegally:

Big networks, bigger companies and big record labels controlled both content and distribution with an iron fist, but as a kid I never really looked at it this way. It was part innocent youth, part Media addict I was, but I saw these companies more as Gatekeepers of Awesomeness. They were doing me a favor by making sure I was aware of all the wonderful entertainment I could not afford. Your opinion may have varied, and mine may have been ridiculous.

So much of this is a result of the age I was at the time. While I was (quietly, awkwardly) transitioning into adulthood, I was also transitioning into the culture of Adult Stuff. Back in the day, the playing field wasn't level between kids and adults like it is now with the Internet. If you were a kid who wanted to see or hear adult-level stuff, it required nearly Prohibition-era secret knocks and handshakes. You needed to know someone that knew someone, or merely had parents that didn't give a shit. It wasn't just there for the taking; it was very much still its own world that you had to graduate in to.

I would sometimes watch these 'Barker Channels' even if I didn't have a pay-per-view ordered that evening. I was just curious to see what sort of next-level entertainment was out there for those in the higher tax brackets. Furthermore, there was a true majesty of the advertising at the time, because it was being equal parts earnest (this was relatively new technology after all) and shameless huckster (I'm not paying to watch a Bruce Willis concert, which was totally a thing that happened).

With premium-tier channels like HBO and Cinemax, they always had a way of making you feel like you were really missing out; the magic of Hollywood would arrive at your doorstep with nothing more than a simple phone call or cable upgrade. I still remember what it felt like to have HBO in my room. The marketing worked like a charm; I felt privileged and connected, even if I couldn't care less what they were airing.

The first pay-per-view I ever bought with my own money was on March 18, 1991. It was a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock. I was a boxing fan at the time, but my excitement was less about the fight, and more about the fact that I was buying a pay-per-view. I was in on the ground floor! When the broadcast began, a little light on my cable box begin to flash, reminding me to turn the channel (no refunds, homie) to one that seemingly poofed into existence shortly after placing a phone call to Warner Communications. That blinking light was so much more exciting than the fight. From there, I bought maybe five more boxing events (mostly Roy Jones Jr. title defenses), but once the UFC came around, I jumped to MMA and never looked back.

Since then, I've ordered my share of Premium channels and PPV's, and while you'd probably assume I'd say that it doesn't feel the same anymore, it kind of does. I still get a little excited before a movie or event begins, irrespective of what I'm about to watch in some circumstances. And I know that feeling has everything to do with these moments in my childhood. There's always a hint of nostalgia; a small twinge that reminds me of how special I used to think this all was. Call me a sucker, but they got their hooks into me at an early age and never let up.

Television, music and movies have been devalued (unarguably from a market standpoint, at least) by the ability to pirate and stream. This doesn't necessarily degrade the quality of the product, and I'm not even saying I disagree with the new model, but it's definitely worlds away from how it was 20 years ago. Today, the idea of not being able to see a specific show the day after it airs on your computer or phone (for free, mind you) is ludicrous to most.

This is an embarrassment of riches that even I take for granted on a daily basis. When these PPV's and special events happened in the 80's and 90's, there was a real possibility that, if you missed it, you may never see it again. No Internet, no YouTube, no DVDs. When they said it was exclusive, they meant it.

This is slightly contradictory to what I said earlier, but in getting everything I've ever wanted in terms of Media- in gaining permanent entry to the club previously enforced by the Gatekeepers of Awesomeness- it doesn't always feel as important as it used to. It's dumb to long for a time when things were more difficult to access, but being an insatiable glutton never made me feel satisfied. I think Elaine said it best:

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"Remember when you first went out to eat with your parents? It was such a treat. You go and they serve you this different food that you never saw before. They put it in front of you and it was such a delicious and exciting adventure...and now I just feel like a big, sweaty hog waiting for them to fill up the trough."

Well put.


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.


Monday, May 2

TV Month 2016 - The Season Premiere.

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My name is Ryan Zeinert, and I am hopelessly addicted to Television.

When I began kicking around the idea of an entire month devoted to my favorite pastime, it boiled down to asking myself a (seemingly) simple question: Why do I love TV so much, anyway?

The answer was a bit deeper than I realized.

When I was a child, there was no Internet. With the exception of radio (a somewhat antiquated medium to kids even in the 80's thanks to the uprising of video games), Television was the only window into a world different from my own. I lived in a rural town with no cable until I was a teenager. I had insomnia. I had no friends within biking distance. I spent a lot of my time in my own head (still do). Nintendo was fine, but it wasn't like you could log on and play Metroid against everyone in the world. It was still a solitary experience unless you had a friend over, which I typically did not.

So I watched TV.

When I couldn't sleep, I watched TV shows. When my shows were over, I'd watch TV shows I didn't like. When those shows were over, I'd watch whatever channel hadn't gone off the air yet. When that was over, I'd watch the National Anthem. And when that was over, I'd watch the Test Pattern. And then maybe, maybe, I'd fall asleep.

My parents tried to police this, I can assure you. They set timers and hid the remote. I didn't have a TV in my room for most of my childhood, but I would sneak downstairs into the living room after everyone had gone to sleep (my only advantage as an insomniac). I spent as much time outside as most well-adjusted kids, but as soon as I went back in, I knew what I would be doing.

It's for these reasons and more (which we'll get to throughout the month), that it's never been about just the shows for me. It was everything: The static, the terrible local networks, the scheduling, even the hardware itself. Everything that goes into getting those images to my face, and what it represents. A pre-Internet way to make yourself known to the planet in ways never before dreamed of. A companion when you're lonely. Even now as an adult, I find myself recording and watching more TV in conjunction with spikes in my anxiety and depression. This is not a coincidence. Sad as it may sound, TV was my friend when I needed it, and I am loyal to my friends.

As the late 80's morphed into the 90's, I moved to the city, we got the Internet, I had more friends around, I became slightly less introverted and I entered my teenage years. But my appreciation for TV never wavered. Cable was exploding into everyone's home. Marketing and advertising was geared specifically to my age group (and as weird and hyperactive as ever). Channels became 24/7. MTV still played music. The Learning Channel was still educational. Right when TV faced becoming antiquated parallel to the Internet, it was to me the richest moment in its history.

And that's when everything changed for me.