NOTHING IS LIKELY TO DATE ‘The Simpsons’ more than the ‘sofa scene’ in the opening sequence. The whole family sitting down to watch the same thing on TV? That is so last century.
I am a first-generation TV kid. Before we got our own set, I used to run through the orchard to the neighbours or cross the road to Uncle Norm’s, dressed in my pyjamas and dressing gown, for a short dose of television before bed. But one wonderful day, I came home from school and there it was: a 21-inch black-and-white Clipper TV with rabbit ears. We were so excited we sat and watched that thing for hours and hours, and then, at six o’clock, it got even more exciting because the programmes came on.
A typical 1960s black-and-white set cost the equivalent of $5000; it was the most valuable thing our family owned. It had a large, rotary channel selector which could click-click-click through 23 channels of snow-storm static and one channel of Government-sanctioned viewing, which, occasionally, was slightly better than the static. The knobs for fine-tuning, vertical-hold and horizontal-hold, were provided so your father could yell at you to stop fiddling and leave it alone. The rabbit ears needed to be twisted through a whole Kamasutra of positions to get a clear signal. Sometimes you could get a decent picture, but only while someone was holding on to the aerial, and it would revert to quivering, ghosting, and buzzing as soon as you sat down. Aah … the good old days.
Our TV programmers, probably because of their tiny wallet, ensured everything obtained from overseas was years old before we got to see it. TV shows came to New Zealand to retire. Visitors from Britain marvelled to see episodes of Coronation Street they recalled from their youth. And the shows got even older once they got here: because we had no network, TV programmes travelled around the country at the speed of trains, not the speed of light. On a trip with my parents to Wellington, I was gutted that I had to watch the same TV shows I’d seen the week before in Auckland; a week later, they would be screened in Christchurch, and maybe in a couple of years they’d get to Dunedin when they finally got a TV station. And if you missed them, don’t worry: they would be back as re-runs, over and over again.
Many of my generation will tell you how they watched Neil Armstrong descending the ladder to the moon’s surface live on TV. No, they didn’t. 500 million people around the world did watch it live, but not if they lived in the primitive isolated backwater of 1969 New Zealand. No satellite links until 1971. We listened to the moon landing on the radio. What we eventually saw on our TVs, much later, was filmed off a TV screen in Australia and flown across the Tasman. TV news back then was like having a man in a suit read a newspaper to you. A long time later, you would get overseas ‘newsreel’, but by then, it was no longer ‘news’; it was ‘olds’.
That one channel of grainy black-and-white TV changed our family life. From that time on, meals were eaten off plates perched on our laps in front of the TV while I was mesmerized by Captain Pugwash, Supercar and Robin Hood. For all I know, I might have been fed dog food during those years. I still have to hum the tune to Bonanza to get my digestion to work.
But here’s the thing. Mum and Dad watched what we kids watched, and we watched what they watched. They suffered through Happen Inn and C’mon the pop shows, and I endured Z-Cars and Dr Finlay’s Casebook. Time together, a shared experience, and we would talk during the ads and have a cup of tea together before I went to bed.
Maybe you can imagine a better way to spend time together. But it was okay. And I think modern families, where everyone is on their own device, might need to work hard to get what we had very easily. It worked for us. And for the Simpsons. For all their dysfunctions, they have been together on that sofa in front of the telly for more than 30 years.
AFTER DECADES STUDYING FAMILY LIFE, JOHN NOW FOCUSSES ON THE ‘PRIME-TIME’ ISSUES OF LATER MIDDLE AGE. CHECK HIM OUT ON WWW.JOHNCOWAN.CO.NZ – ESPECIALLY IF YOU NEED SOME WRITING, EVENT SPEAKING, VIDEOS MADE, OR SOMEONE TO HAVE A COFFEE WITH.