Free TV! Works!


Here’s something I’m half-thankful about from this Thanksgiving. When we got back to Toronto, we were walking up my street from the subway station when my girlfriend pointed out a television sitting by a neighbor’s curb. Free TV! Works! was scribbled on a piece of paper sitting on top. “Grab it!” said my girlfriend, because that’s what you do with a free TV that works.

My TV at home sits beside my computer in sort of a work area, and there isn’t a couch nearby, so I can’t really sit down with my girlfriend and watch it together. This way, we could put a second TV in the bedroom and we could lie in bed and watch it, since we evidently never have anything particularly better to do while lying in bed together.

So, I grabbed it and struggled up the street with it in my arms and a duffel bag filled with laundry from the weekend slung across my back. My girlfriend offered to take the bag, but I shooed her away. I just wanted to make a clean getaway because I noticed the TV’s former owner coming out of his house. It’s not like I was stealing it or anything; I just felt weird about being seen as a garbage picker. So, I hurried up the street, with sweat pouring off me and my girlfriend giving me worried, sympathetic looks while I panted at her to stop making things more difficult by looking at me like that. After buying some coaxial cable and a splitter and hooking it all up while accidentally knocking things over and swearing and generally being a miserable person to be around, I finally got it working.

Sort of. It wouldn’t actually turn on. Or, it would turn on, and then it turned itself off again immediately. It took at least twenty tries before it would catch and stay on. Last night, we were going to lie in bed and watch the presidential debate, and I spent at least forty-five minutes standing beside this thing, jabbing away at the power button. It was like hand-cranking a Model T to get it started, and I vowed that if I ever got it on again, I’d never turn it off. If I wanted to sleep, I’d just turn down the sound and try to find a channel with not much going on. The higher electricity bills would be worth the convenience. After all, given the effort I was expending just trying to turn the thing on, I could go out and get a minimum-wage part-time job and, after an equivalent amount of time, I could just buy a new TV set. This is why I’m only half-thankful for getting a free TV: The sign saying it worked was only half-accurate. My neighbors are perpetuating half-truths with their curbside trash.

My girlfriend marveled at my patience in trying to get the thing to work. But, in my house, I’ve had a lot of experience with things that don’t work. And the whole process reminded me, a little nostalgically, of how much more inconvenient television was when I was a kid. At the risk of sounding like I’m saying I had to walk uphill in the snow for two miles both ways just to be a couch potato, kids today have it easy.

Standing in front of the TV for a few minutes to turn it on is nothing. We didn’t have a remote control. (And when we did get one, it was tethered to by a wire, so people had to exhibit some agility to avoid getting tripped — or deliberately whipped by the wielder.) We had to stand up not only to turn the TV on but also to turn the channel. But we didn’t mind that so much because, first, this is what allowed people to watch TV all day and still get a little exercise, and second, we didn’t have that many channels anyway. We didn’t have cable, so all we got were the few snowy channels we could pick up on the rabbit ears. Sometimes, you couldn’t sit at all to watch because the reception depended on your maintaining your body position as though you were in a game of frozen tag. This really sucked if you couldn’t actually see the screen from your vantage point, but you’d just have to suck it up for the common good and trust that people would accurately describe the onscreen action to you. Maybe you’d be handed a coat hanger to improve the reception a little, or maybe your father would swathe you in a few yards of aluminum foil. This is what it was like for families to watch television together back then. It’s also probably why sales of board games were higher.

Kids who grew up without cable television are different from kids who did. I mean, it’s probably not to ridiculous to posit that the media you consume during your formative years helps determine what kind of a person you become. For instance, I’m not really a channel-surfer. Not only did I have few channels as a kid, but we broke the channel dial off our TV and had to use a pair of pliers to turn to another station. I think this might be why I’m more content to just patiently sit through commercial breaks without flipping around. It just was never worth the effort.

But this doesn’t explain why my girlfriend, who also grew up without cable and with a TV requiring pliers, is a channel surfer and prefers to mute the volume during the commercials instead of just shouting over them. So, here’s another example: When I was in kindergarten, my friends liked to play G-Force, which is what we erroneously called the cartoon Battle of the Planets (which we would have more correctly called Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman if we’d lived in Japan, but then, if we’d lived in Japan, we’d have been about a decade more technologically advanced and wouldn’t have put up with archaic TV technology). I’d never actually seen Battle of the Planets. We didn’t get that channel. So I didn’t know that it was best to take the role of either Mark, the heroic team leader, or Jason, the brooding antihero. I knew enough that I didn’t want to be Princess. But I didn’t know that by accepting the role of Keyop, I’d be the runty comic relief character. Of course, it’s been pointed out to me that I sort of am a runty comic relief character, but I’m not arguing that this is the reason I became one. I’m just saying this is why I won’t play G-Force anymore.

Another thing is that we got only one American network: CBS. This is why, even though I don’t fit into its usual septuagenarian demographic, I still identify more strongly with CBS than any other American network. When I finally got cable, it always felt a little like crossing into enemy territory to watch NBC or ABC. It felt like the news reporters would be putting a different spin on things, that I couldn’t trust them as much. And, honestly, I probably couldn’t. CBS did have the best in the business, after all. CBS had 60 Minutes, which is where I developed the ambition to one day be as crotchety and cantankerous as Andy Rooney. He may seem like a bit of a punchline to many, but he’s basically got a blogger’s dream job, getting paid to complain about minutia to a national audience. And when I was young, the lead anchor was still Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America. Realizing that makes me feel old, the same as when I think about how I slid in there for the end of the presidency of Richard Nixon, then the least trusted man in America.

Feeling that old makes me want to lie down, which is how I watched the presidential debate last night. I never did get that TV on, though, and I didn’t watch it on CBS either. Instead, I lay in bed and used my girlfriend’s laptop to watch a live feed on as she slumbered beside me. In another browser tab, I was able to watch YouTube videos of John McCain being caught in gape-mouthed shock as Barack Obama rebutted him with a historic sound bite (“Here’s your fine: zero.”) In another tab, I posted about whether McCain deriding Obama for his eloquence was just the usual Republican celebration of anti-intellectual mediocrity or another way of damning a black candidate with faint praise by commenting on his articulateness. I was still swathed in yards of aluminum foil, but for my own pleasure rather than to improve the cable signal. It’s so easy to be a couch potato these days that I’ve moved right on to being a bed potato, and for that, I’m fully thankful.

4 Responses to “Free TV! Works!”

  1. 1 Elizabeth

    I also grew up without cable. Being in the GTA, we could get about 8 channels via the CN Tower, so I didn’t suffer too terribly, but this post reminds me of squinting at a fuzzy screen and relentlessly maneuvering bunny ears so that I could semi-watch The Facts of Life for a second time each weekday on the Barrie channel.

    Growing up without cable did make me feel terribly deprived, though, and I got myself a cable package as soon as I rented my first house during university. In my final year, I had a complicated arrangement with my two housemates where we split the cost of Basic Cable, they paid for the Cable Plus channels, and I paid for the Cable Plus Select channels. We agreed not to watch each other’s channels to make it “fair”, but one housemate recorded Babylon 5 on Space everyday, which was one of “my” channels.

  2. I’m currently growing up in Wales, which is tremendously annoying. I get four channels, for which I pay an annual fee. One of these channels is ITV, which is essentially wall-to-wall fly on the wall documentaries. One of these channels is S4C, which is almost entirely in Welsh. The only channels left, then, are BBC1 and BBC2. And y’know what? The BBC has decided to start repeating all their programs on these two channels online FOR FREE.

    If you’re wondering why a stranger is trying to one-up you in terms of how miserable his TV is…. I have no answer for you Sorry.

  3. I’ll have to try the tinfoil someday when I have time. Currently when I want to be a bed potato, I have to stab myself all over with a fork and then bombard myself with microwaves.

  4. 4 Riley

    I don’t think adding tinfoil to that mix is the brightest idea ever.

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