The evolution of the tube and the boobs that watch them

Will I be the last person in the world to buy a $4,000 flat-screen plasma TV? I see the ads in the paper every day and all I can think is “Where is everyone getting $4,000?” The last time I had an “extra” $4,000 I wasted it on food, taxes and health insurance. What was I thinking? I could have had a TV. Not that I could have afforded to watch it. Once you get the $4,000 TV, you’ve got to subscribe to cable or satellite or there’s no point. And you don’t want the basic package, you want the HDTV package with all the sports and the movie channels, so let’s add a $150 each month to the cost of your television. Face it, once you’ve seen “Deal or No Deal” on a giant, flat-screen plasma TV, there’s no going back to the 27-incher.

When I was a kid, there were only three channels on television. Unless you lived in a big city where they might have one or two extras. And there was the “educational channel” on the UHF dial. We could never figure out what that UHF dial was for, it never seemed to work.

But there were problems. Some people didn’t like the stranglehold the three networks had on the news. Some people thought shows like “Petticoat Junction” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” proved we were a culture in decline. I thought Lawrence Welk was old and hokey. But I watched him because whatever was on the other two stations was even older and hokier, which is hard to imagine. Half of Ed Sullivan’s audience watched to see the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The other half watched to see plate spinners and Senor Wenceslas. To this day, his two audiences have a hard time speaking to each other.

People complained about how bad all three channels were, how nothing was on. Now we have hundreds of channels and thousands of shows. And guess what? People complain about how bad television is. They don’t like the cable news channels, they don’t like the shows, they don’t like the violence, they don’t like what the kids are seeing, they don’t like the music videos. How buying a $4,000 TV will solve those problems is beyond me.

For me, the biggest change in TV since I was a kid hasn’t been what’s on it, but how we watch it – with the clicker in our hands. The invention of the remote control, the clicker, changed TV and it changed us. When they first came out, comedians used to make fun of the people who had remote control channel changers. How lazy can you get? Pretty lazy, as it turns out.

In “The Powers That Be,” David Halberstam tells a story about Walter Cronkite watching TV at the home of his boss, the founder and president of CBS, Bill Paley in the mid-’60s. At one point they want to change the channel and Cronkite says, “Bill, where’s the clicker?”

Paley, one of the richest and most sophisticated men in the country, touches a button, the butler comes in, changes the channel then leaves the room.

Now we would feel lost without the clicker. Don’t like the channel? Click. If only it stopped there. Don’t like your job? Click. Don’t like your nose? Click. Don’t like your spouse? Click. I don’t blame TV, we do it to ourselves.

Now TV’s changing again. I was at the movies last week and waiting for it to start, I noticed a bunch of teenagers in the seats in front of me with their cell phones out. They weren’t talking on them; in groups of twos and threes, they would gather around someone’s cell phone and watch TV shows they’d missed on the tiny screen.

They seemed to be enjoying TV on the tiny 2-inch screen as much as they would on a brand new $4,000 80-incher. Go figure.

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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