Hard to remember, isn’t it, when as younger baby boomers we had three TV channels to watch. Just three. But for Seattle writer Ron Gompertz, there weren’t even that many. Not in his home anyway. Why? We’ll let him tell you himself.
We were a Chevrolet family in the sixties because my mom grew up Jewish in Detroit during World War II and Henry Ford, like the right-wing radio priest Father Coughlin, was not considered a friend of the tribe. We also were a Sears “Kenmore” appliance family because the heartland department store extended credit to my grandfather during the Great Depression so he could buy a washing machine for Grandma.
Loyalty mattered, so we also were an NBC family because that’s where my father worked. Unlike every other American kid growing up in the sixties, I have no memories of non-NBC icons like Walter Cronkite and Jackie Gleason. Unlike my entire generation, I did NOT see the Beatles on CBS’ “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. Likewise, the Rolling Stones and The Doors. The revolution was televised and I missed it.
Because loyalty mattered.
But loyalty also left me a bit isolated. The kids at school liked Hogan’s Heroes but it was on CBS, which was as welcome in our home as bacon during Passover. Of course even if it had been NBC that aired Hogan’s Heroes, it would have been verboten because my father was (and still is) a Holocaust survivor who failed to see the humor in a sit-com set in a Nazi POW camp. I still can’t imagine pitching this idea.
The NBC-Only rule didn’t result in any more childhood trauma though than the TV itself. In fact, my advance plot knowledge each week of next week’s “Get Smart” episode made me temporarily popular in 5th grade. I also had useful insights into “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’s” gags and punch lines. In retrospect, I regret having missed the Smothers Brothers, but NBC’s “I Dream of Jeannie” seemed like fine compensation at the time. Plus, in a playground pinch, I could trump any kid’s superior access to all three networks with two powerful words: “Star Trek.”
There were perks to our network purgatory. NBC had a cool employee picnic every year and an even cooler free day at Walt’s wonderful world of Disneyland. Our collection of NBC primetime beach towels grew yearly with the new season on Terrycloth, so our network pride was on full display when we staked our claim in the sands of Santa Monica. Even better, my dad once got me into a soundstage to see Ringo tape a song or two.
There were exceptions and blatant violations to the NBC-Only rule too. Channels changed freely when Deputy Dad wasn’t in the room. In fact, he spent so much time around TV on his day job as a network publicist that I don’t remember him watching much at home. Our primetime TV was officially limited to an hour a day, but the accounting didn’t include all the silly kid shows we watched after school.
UHF stations were deemed educational and acceptable, but the reception was so terrible that I can’t name one pre-PBS program of interest from back then. All I remember is turning the clear plastic UHF dial with one hand and joggling the rabbit ears antenna with the other while hoping for a connection from space aliens or local stations with something to offer.
The major networks imitated each other enough that NBC-Only still provided a clear window into the culture. My lack of, say, “Lassie” depth was easily compensated for by watching so many “Flipper” episodes that I can still sing the theme song. I remember what a breakthrough it was in 1968, when my father’s network aired “Julia” with Diahann Carroll in the first leading role for an African-American woman. So who cares that I missed some other network’s “Doris Day Show?”
Anyway, no matter how my parents tried to limit our access, the broader culture always crept in around the edges. Making something like ABC a taboo just rendered it more interesting. Besides, TVs were always on in friends’ homes and kids share far more inappropriate and wide-ranging misinformation at school. Subversive material was hiding in plain sight on the coffee table “TV Guide” that I studied from cover-to-cover, especially the fascinating horoscopes. “This would be a good week to watch less television and focus on that school project, Libra.”
Cultural osmosis is a force of nature so strong that even the most drastic measures can’t prevent it. I remember the channel dial actually disappearing once, but in spite of this parental power play, the NBC-Only rule never really stood a chance. We still managed to see every episode of Gilligan’s Island on CBS and, once its revolutionary “All in the Family” hit in 1971, the single channel system was overthrown for good.
My parents could generally be trusted, but I have since learned of a few lies they told us. Turning the clock forward on New Year’s Eve to get us into bed at a reasonable hour is a trick I eventually used on my own kids. I also told them that “Star Trek” was a documentary, so who am I to judge?
And I can’t fault my folks for never mentioning that the “Carol Burnett Show” was on CBS because it was so brilliant that missing out would have induced lasting trauma.
After all, it was the sixties and rules were made to be broken.