Appointment Television: A Bedtime Story

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illustration by Elisabeth Dahl
illustration by Elisabeth Dahl

Baltimore writer Elisabeth Dahl breaks to us gently how TV used to treat people.

I’m going to tell you a story, children. It’s a little scary. It’s about your parents.

Don’t leave. You should know this about them. It will help you understand.

Here goes. When most of your parents were little, there was no Nickelodeon. No Cartoon Network. No Disney Channel. There were only a few stations to choose from.

I know!

There was PBS, which had shows for them in the daytime, like Sesame Street, which you’ve watched. There were Saturday mornings, when all three networks showed cartoons. That was back in the days before so many parents got up to drive kids places on Saturday mornings.

There was The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. Also, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which a lot of people watched, even if they didn’t really care to know how boa constrictors dealt with their prey.

What I’m saying is, a lot of times your parents had to watch television that was not created explicitly for them. They spent rainy Sunday afternoons watching golfers putt or skiers jump. They watched game shows, soap operas, Westerns, variety shows, sitcoms set in Santa Monica, hour-long programs set on cruise ships. National news, local news, 60 Minutes. The Lawrence Welk Show, for God’s sake. There was a level of tolerance.

A few other technical points. Not every television had a remote or was in color. Some households had only one television that everyone shared. Sometimes, you’d spend ten minutes just getting a TV antenna angled correctly, so the picture came in better. And unless you left the room for more Ho Hos or French-braided your sister’s hair, you saw the commercials. All of them. No fast-forwarding.

I realize it’s a lot to take in.

Here’s the second big thing. Your parents had to watch programs when they aired. There was no way to capture programs and view them later. If you missed an after-school special because you had to go to band practice or your brother’s football game, you were out of luck. And if the president needed to send the nation a message while The Wonderful World of Disney was on, there was nothing you could do about it.

You couldn’t just DVR all the holiday cartoon specials or call them up on YouTube or Netflix, you had to watch them during the broadcast. You couldn’t see two things that aired at the same time unless you flipped back and forth between channels.

That’s right. I’m talking hard-core.

Your parents learned things you might never learn. They learned what it looked like when a jackal took down a rabbit. They knew that Earl Anthony was the best pro bowler. They understood what “the agony of defeat” was—and that it was nothing like “the triumph of victory.”

Movies were forms of entertainment you either saw in a theater or watched on the rare occasions a television station broadcast them. They weren’t shelved in your family room cabinet, procured at the convenience store’s Redbox, or summoned digitally on a whim. They were not something you’d seen so many times, you’d memorized most of the dialogue.

Once a year, The Sound of Music (not the Carrie Underwood one) aired. Everyone watched, unless they were off writing chain mail or campaigning for Jimmy Carter. Another day every year, The Wizard of Oz was broadcast.

Give your parents a squeeze the next time you see them. They lived through a lot.

Your grandparents? Don’t even ask.


Elisabeth Dahl writes, teaches, and edits from her home in Baltimore. Her short pieces for adults have appeared at, at The Rumpus, in theJohns Hopkins Magazine, and elsewhere. Her first book, an illustrated novel for children entitled Genie Wishes, was published by Abrams Books in 2013. A version of this essay first appeared at Classic Play.

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  1. Absolutely brillliant — like a trip in a time machine! I hadn’t realized all these years the deprivation I had suffered as a child — this is going to take a LOT of therapy.

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