Thursday, July 06, 2006

Cable TV Comes to South Philly

Blogger's Note: Circumstances haven't allowed me to write as much as I'd like to lately. Physical trials - my own and those of others in my family, have taken priority. For the few who read this blog, my thanks for your patience in waiting for the articles. I'll continue to write, just not as often as I had been lately.

Young people today will never remember a time when they didn’t have a multitude of channels with nothing to watch. Bruce Springsteen sung in the early 90s about having fifty-seven channels with nothing on. Today it’s over a hundred and still it seems that there's not much to watch. Murder has become entertainment (Jon Benet Ramsey, Natalee Holloway, etc. via hour long shows from Greta Van Sustern, Rita Cosby, et al). Half-hour informercials abound for things like colon cleansing (witness the guy on CN8 bragging ab0ut his child's massive bowel movement. I've never seen such a beaming smile, dad's very proud.) So we have a multitude of channels with programs about crap or that are just crappy.

Back in the mid-70’s, the area west of Broad Street and I believe above Oregon was the test area for cable TV. No one else had it, not Southwest, Northeast, not even parts of South Philly. We were the lucky ones. Woo-hoo!

What we had back then would probably be laughed off by today’s standards. There was no TNT, USA, MTV or CNN at the time. We basically had a few New York channels (WOR channel 9 and WPIX channel 11) and a few odd things in between. There was 24 hour news, but it was just text on screen provided by Reuters. If you were one of the homes having it at the time, you’ll remember your “remote” was a box as big as a cigar box, with 15 buttons for channels and a rocker switch to go from the top tier to the bottom. Plus it had a tuning wheel to fine tune your picture. It was really primitive, but it worked for us. Telesystems was the company running the show at the time. It gave way to Greater Media, which was swallowed up later by Comcast, but I think there was another company that was somewhere between the last two. So much for the four franchises the city was supposed to have. Comcast has just about everything wrapped up.

We got cable TV installed on the same day we got a color TV back in the mid-70’s. We were always outside doing something, but not that day. We stayed inside and stayed glued to the tube. It was a big event for us, although like everything else, we got bored of it and life returned to normal shortly afterward.

Not long after we got cable, HBO became available. It was there where we first heard obscenities coming off the tube, much to my mom’s chagrin. It was a movie called Law & Disorder with Carrol O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine on a Sunday evening. Mom was livid, threatening to get rid of HBO if that was what they were going to show. Dad didn’t care much about it, so he wanted to keep it. Dad won, or so some would say. My thoughts today is that there’s not a need for profanity in movies. That’s a political argument, this is a blog about memories so we’ll not go there.

Kids, if you ever find yourself bored with TV, think of this…my earliest memories of TV was an old black & white Admiral TV with a tuning knob (a what?) – no remote controls (well my dad had one. He told us to change the channel, and we did). And we had only three channels (KYW 3; WFIL 6 – now WPVI, and public television, channel 12). Our set didn’t even get CBS 10. It wasn’t until 1969 or 1970 that we got a Sears Silvertone console set that had – wonder of wonders – UHF channels! We finally had a selection of shows that we only heard of before.

That wouldn’t cut it for folks today, but it worked for us. Ah, simpler times!

... Doctor Shock’s horror movies on Saturday nights on channel 17. Who can forget his kid, Bubbles?
... Mr. Gagliardi, the English teacher from Neumann hosting Cable Bingo.
... The Flyers channel after they won their first Stanley Cup. Neighborhood guys found you could get it free instead of paying for it by simply pressing two buttons on the remote.
... When stations signed off for the night with the national anthem.
... Test patterns that occupied the screen from signoff until around 6 AM when the channels signed on again.
... When each station had an announcer that was as well known as the anchors on their news programs. Gene Crane was on 10, Paul Norton on 6 and Gary Geers on 3.


Anonymous said...

Hey Brian, we were just having a discussion about the first Cable company in So. Philly - we lived at 28th and Cantrell between Snyder and Jackson and we were part of the "Test area" that you spoke about. The first cable movie I remember was "The Sting" and it was a big deal. We had company all the time to watch the Flyers on Prism because no other areas had it. Thanks for the memories!!!

Brian said...

Thanks for your reply. I get a reminder of PRISM once in a while when I pull an old VHS tape out of the cabinet and watch a movie I taped way back when on that channel.