Extraordinary How Potent Cheap Television Is

When I first joined Equity, and started spending significant periods of time in its audition Lounge, I discovered something peculiar. I would frequently hear people discuss having seen things “the other night” on television – things like the latest episode of Kojak, or a notable guest on the Dick Cavett Show – which I knew to have aired some decades prior. Though older, these folks weren’t losing their faculties, they didn’t seem confused. How, then, could they have conflated time to such a degree, as to think large swaths of programing from the 1970s had happened just last weekend?

Now that I’m a cranky old recluse myself, the answer is abundantly clear.

A few months ago, I moved to the Bronx, and as part of a number of cost-cutting and life-changing measures, I got rid of cable. Despite living in the so-called Second Golden Age of Television, when all manner of groundbreaking programming is to be found on the channels I can no longer see, I find I don’t miss it at all. Not having to be subjected to the 24-hour cable news cycle makes up for a great deal. And true, if I really wanted to watch the rampaging dragons and direwolves of Game of Thrones in real time, I could set up Netflix or HBO Go with a minimum of fuss. But I’ve been busy the past few months working on a variety of writing projects, and the lack of distractions has been welcome, so I simply haven’t bothered. I haven’t been able to say goodbye to television completely, however (and as an actor interested in the current state of pop culture, I don’t believe you should), and I wound up getting a digital antenna.

It’s here where the answer to our original riddle presents itself. For in addition to the basic broadcast networks, the digital antenna picks up a number of channels which don’t usually appear on the cultural radar, and may be otherwise unknown to god or man. Here in New York, there are of course a wide variety of foreign language channels. But there are also a number of strange nostalgia networks – networks whose daily programming is indeed the enormous swath of 60s and 70s cheese to which those mysterious conversations were referring. This past weekend, there was a marathon showing of a Tarzan TV show from 1966-68 which I otherwise had no idea existed. Previous weekends have shown marathons of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and the illustrious 70s classic Celebrity Bowling, because we must not be allowed to forget that this society of ours once allowed televised celebrity bowling to be an actual thing. And throw in talk shows and other news broadcasts from the period which get thrown into the mix, and the time warp illusion is complete.

I admit, all of this is strangely seductive – largely because it’s trafficking in forgotten bits of flotsam from my childhood. Chance upon a nostalgia station after coming home from a weary day, home alone, no other outside stimulus coming in, and it truly is as though I have stumbled back into my room as an 8 year old, ready to slip back and relax in its comforts and hide from the big scary world outside. This, of course, is the terrifying part – how easy such a retreat can be.

We need to engage with the world around us – as artists, if such we are, but more importantly as humans. TV has long been accused of making this engagement impossible. That’s not always the case – the best of what it does facilitates this engagement instead – but the nostalgia channels have an amazing way of finding the worst of what TV has been and feeding it to us in great 48-hour long chunks. Not that there isn’t value there as well – I’ve managed to find some old Playhouse 90 broadcasts in its rotation, a treasure trove to actors and students of history – but at its worst, it’s turning those of us with more modest means into the cranky folks who hear about the daring and richness of today’s medium and decide we’re better off with Kojak, and who back up our opinions with the arguments we heard on last night’s Susskind show.  We’re the ones who most need to make our voices heard, and the digital antenna is beaming in this constant reminder in washed-out color that it’s better not to bother – just sit back on the couch and vegetate again, like you did when you were eight.

All of which is to say that, if somebody wanted to subsidize performing artists by letting us get free satellite upgrades, all issues of economic feasibility aside, I’d be hard pressed to say no.

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