The single biggest change in television viewing over the past few decades has nothing to do with an increase in dirty words or exposed flesh nor with a wasteland of idiotic reality shows. In fact, if the truth must be told, there have been variations of TV shows in which the leading characters were real people and not actors. The primary difference between what passes as a reality show and what passed as a reality show in the past is mainly to do with the abundance of repulsive non-actors who would never have been considered interesting enough to feature back when only three or four networks existed to supply programming. But I digress; the most excessively influential transformative element that divides what television viewing was for its first 40 years from what it has been ever since is how the medium treats older movies.
One might go so far as to suggest a little bit of karma exists in this version of the history of TV. For those not familiar with their television history: movie studios saw the invention of the little box as yet another in a never-ending line of technological innovations destined to destroy the motion picture industry forever. Like cable and VCRs and DVDs and DVRs and Video-on-Demand and illegal downloading. (For those keeping score, 2013 witnessed record-breaking box office grosses despite the fact that you probably can’t recall more than two movies released that year.)
Hard as it may be to believe for all you kids who have grown up on the concept of networks airing the very same movie in the very same time slot over the course of a three-day weekend, there was a time when both local TV stations and national TV networks used to provide a nearly unlimited education in film history. You will be hard pressed to enjoy a movie made before 1990 on TV today with the notable exception of “The Godfather,” which tends to be enrolled in the heavy rotation of AMC every few months.
A generation has now grown up with absolutely no significant knowledge of gangster flicks from the 1930s, war movies from the early 1940s, film noir from the late 1940s, psychological westerns from the 1950s, angry young man movies from the 1960s and the full monty of the American New Wave that characterizes the films of the 1970s. If you were to judge the 1980s by the movies that manage to pop up on cable networks today, you would think that Molly Ringwald was the biggest star of the decade.
Flashback: the 1960s and 1970s. Those were the halcyon days of television before the arrival of infomercials, Jerry Springer and courtroom shows. Irony of ironies: despite the fact that the average home today has about 100 different cable stations, fewer movies are available for viewing. The 100 cable networks today collectively offer about 25 different movies a month on a slightly changing cycle that are then repeated ad nauseum.
Ask someone who grew up without cable about the wealth of Hollywood entertainment by way of the silver screen that they had to choose from. Instead of “Spiderman 3” aired with “encore showings” the next two nights after the original, a single weekend might have offered the opportunity to enjoy “The Public Enemy” and “King Kong,” Abbott and Costello and Dagwood and Blondie, cowboy pictures, 50s monster movies and melodramas starring Bette, Joan or Barbara. It was a magical time and it provided television viewers with a comprehensive knowledge of film that extended back more than five years before the year they were born.