My Personal Television History

A few weeks ago, as I made my way through television critic David Bianculli’s “Personal Theory of TV Evolution” exhibit at Apexart in New York City, I found myself entranced by five different screens showing clips from different eras of television. In his exhibit, Bianculli curated an impressive collection of television artifacts, but the most fascinating part to me was this “Theory of Television Evolution,” as shown on the five screens, each showing a clip from a specific genre during a different time period to demonstrate how each evolved over time.

Although I’ve studied television history both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, what surprised me is how much of Bianculli’s theory of television evolution was new to me. It got me thinking about my own personal slice of television history: my own view of how television has evolved and how my view of the medium has changed over time. While my knowledge of television is nowhere near as expansive as Bianculli’s, if there’s one thing I took away from the exhibit, it’s that everyone has a unique relationship with TV, so here’s mine.

Television Is Not Evil

When I was in elementary school, “Turn Off the TV Week” was an annual tradition. We weren’t required to participate, and I never did. My parents didn’t believe in completely eliminating television; they preferred that I learned to limit my viewing on my own. Thus, I was only allowed to watch television after my homework or whatever else I had to do was done, and I was never allowed to just sit for hours and watch. And my parents always made sure I was reading, which wasn’t difficult because I was much more of a voracious reader than TV watcher as a kid.

Accordingly, having never been told that television was “bad” or “evil” (as forbidding it for a week would have done), I came to learn that television – in moderation – could be a force for good. Television didn’t need to be a time sucker; it had the capability to inspire and teach.

I won’t pretend that a lot of my favorite children’s programming inspired and taught, but they did open my imagination. I enjoyed watching shows like The Rugrats (my first “favorite TV show”), Rocket Power, and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, all of whose characters had exciting adventures. One of my favorite programs was the Nickelodeon game show Figure It Out!, during which a celebrity panel had to guess whatever noteworthy thing the young contestant had done (sort of like a kids’ version of What’s My Line?, I’ve only recently realized). I loved the show so much that I wanted to be on it. I remember sitting at home, racking my brains and trying to invent something interesting so that I could apply to be a contestant. Figure It Out! forced my imagination to work.

Growing Up TV

As I approached my preteen years, my viewing began to mature. While I was still watching Rocket Power, I began to watch Touched by a Angel with my mother, which made me feel very “grown up” since it was my first real show that dealt with real issues. In fifth grade, I even remember choosing to name it as my favorite television show over Rocket Power so that I could appear more “cultured” than my peers. In retrospect, this may have shaped how I view television, as to this day, I try to watch television that appears intellectually stimulating.

In this period, television may have lost its sense of wonder and adventure for me, though I was beginning to understand the true meaning of “entertainment”: drama that moved and comedy that made me laugh. It was also around this time that I discovered, via TV Land, some classic comedy, including I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, All in the Family, and The Jeffersons. And then the “newer” shows like The Golden Girls and Murder, She Wrote.

These comedies eventually gave way to Everybody Loves Raymond, which I discovered in late middle school, the summer between the sixth and seventh seasons. It was undoubtedly the first “grown up” show that I followed week to week, and thanks to reruns, I could easily catch up every episode, some multiple times. I continued to watch Everybody Loves Raymond through its finale, and it made me know that I loved contemporary television.

Matters of Character

And then there was Lost.

Because of Lost, I began to defend television if people dismissed the medium as a waste of time. I was a young teen when it premiered, and it was the first “cerebral” show I watched week to week. I would explain that it was like a good novel: it had ongoing plot lines, deep themes, and dynamic characters.

Through Lost, I came to the realization that television relies on character. For shows that continue for years, the characters have to be strong enough for people to want to keep watching them. Lost‘s laser focus on its characters no doubt kept me coming back week after week – year after year, even – especially through the handful of tiresome plot lines.

This is especially true of the show’s controversial first six episodes of the third season. Though many complained that nothing was happening, the characters compelled me to return. It all started with the introductory scene featuring Petula Clarke’s “Downtown.” It opened with a woman’s eye, someone we had not yet seen. I remember wondering if there was a problem with ABC. Was an episode of Desperate Housewives airing instead of Lost? Who was this woman, and what was her story?

This scene – the introduction of Juliet Burke – and the character arc that followed helped me see how television shows did not have to stay static and how new characters could inject new life into a show. It gave me a whole new perspective on television storytelling.

Changes in Television Consumption

In 1999 or 2000, I remember watching a segment on 60 Minutes (or perhaps another news program) about a device called “TiVo,” which could easily record and store multiple hours of TV.  The concept fascinated me, but I had no way of knowing how important it would become. For this was before I started watching things week after week, before it really mattered if you missed a program.

But Lost changed that. I remember that I used to have to set up our VCR to record some episodes of Lost while I was too busy with homework in high school, as my family was late to get DVR service. When we did get DVR service, it was partly because of Lost. We had been thinking about getting a DVR, and the fourth season finale was airing on a night when we all had a function, and I could not bear to go to school the next day not seeing it – and I couldn’t stay up to watch it after it finished airing. Enter the DVR, by which I could start watching the episode while it was still airing.

It forever changed how I watched television.

Lost also introduced me to another phenomenon: online streaming. When ABC rolled out its test of the feature during the show’s second season, I remember rewatching some episodes online. It felt so foreign to me, this idea of watching TV on a computer screen.

The first show I watched (almost) exclusively on the computer was Journeyman, a show about a time traveling journalist that lasted only one season. I began to watch it on Hulu during the site’s very early days. As I sat watching Journeyman on my computer one day, I thought to myself, “Am I really watching this television show if I’m watching it on my computer screen?” How inconsequential that question seems now, when some shows are only available to stream on a computer. Little did I know that streaming would become the new normal within the next decade.

The Television Industry

Journeyman was one of my favorite “one season wonders.” Starting around the mid-2000s, I found myself in a pattern: I would watch a few new pilots every year, find one or two that I really loved, and they would invariably be canceled by the end of the year, if not earlier.  My list of “one season wonders” is an offbeat group of shows each with something unique: Jack and Bobby, Commander in Chief, The Nine, New Amsterdam, Aliens in America, Cane, Kings, and Awake.

My frustration back then led me to learn more about the television industry, how many pilots are put into production each year and how very difficult it is for a show to make it to a second season. Cancellations, I learned, were an inevitable part of the business.

I also learned what governed renewals and cancellations: television ratings. I remember my excitement the first time I finally understood what the Nielsen ratings meant. As I learned more about the television industry, I began to delve into other genres and time periods of the medium I had not yet explored. I was expanding my television horizons and beginning to piece together my own personal history of TV.

British Television

It started with British programs. The first British program I remember seeing was a kids’ science fiction show called Aquila that I caught on television in Europe one summer. I only saw one episode, but it stayed with me. I couldn’t find it the same time the next day or the next, but I found myself constantly thinking about it. It’s funny to think of something like that happening now, when almost everything is available with a few clicks of a mouse. But that’s broadcasting: on a screen one second, gone the next.

I lost track of Aquila – though not the sense of wonder it inspired in me. It would take another British sci-fi children’s show to really get the ball rolling for me on British television.

In 2007, I had a cousin from England who told me about this show called Doctor Who, so I went ahead and found it on my TV. I watched an episode and thought it was all right. A couple of weeks later, I tuned into another episode: “Blink.” And I haven’t looked back since.

I still consider “Blink” one of my top three or five all-time favorite episodes of television. When I visited Cardiff, Wales, a few years later, I went searching for some of the statues featured in the epilogue. My own “TV Tourism,” if you will.

A few years and a few other British programs later came a little show called Downton Abbey.

Whoever would have thought how huge Downton Abbey would become based on that short trailer? When Downton Abbey premiered in the US, I was already reading dozens of television critics and blogs. Many were talking about what a great show it was, so I watched it and loved it immediately.

I told my family and friends about the show, and I was able to get some of them to watch it. After I bought the DVD set, I even sat some friends down and had them watch it. These people in turn told others about it, creating a nice chain reaction. I like to think that word of mouth like this helped establish Downton Abbey as a hit in this country because it certainly wasn’t universally known during its first season.

Downton Abbey helped me see that I could be a TV influential. Friends and family began to trust my opinion. Simply said, I could get people to watch a TV show. It was a great feeling, one that finally made me feel like an authority in something.

But I was not yet an authority. I still needed more exploration.

Cable Television

My senior year of college, I took a television writing class as an elective. As part of the first class, we watched the pilot episode of Breaking Bad as an example, as my professor explained, “of what television could be.”

I was skeptical. I knew that Breaking Bad was critically acclaimed, but I also knew what its premise was, and I had no interest in watching a show “about” drugs. And yet, I enjoyed the pilot episode. Here, I thought, was a collection of truly interesting characters, people I would like to follow week after week, the building blocks of a great story.

Not having Netflix, I didn’t think about Breaking Bad for another year, until SundanceTV began airing the series from the beginning. And I was hooked more quickly than I imagined I would be.

Like that, I finally understood the allure of the proper cable television programs. A smattering of other programs followed, chiefly Enlightened, Orphan Black, Vikings, Manhattan, and my pick for the best show currently on cable, Rectify. Each has brought something unique to my viewing, challenging me to broaden my horizons.

Foreign Language Television

I have very little memory of television in Europe for a few years after stumbling upon that single episode of Aquila as a kid. When I started wanting to practice my French comprehension, I discovered a few shows, including the charming French comedy Un gars, une fille, in perfect six minute nuggets for me to digest and starring future Oscar winner Jean Dujardin.  The episode embedded below, I believe, is the very first I stumbled upon.

At the time, European television was difficult to find here in the US, but thankfully, that is changing, in no small part thanks to the Internet. The world is becoming smaller as Americans are able to access foreign television if they wish to seek it out. We live in a world where SundanceTV earns raves for airing the French Les revenants, where LinkTV gets on my radar for airing the Danish Borgen, and where CUNY TV in New York gains me as a viewer for airing the Swedish Wallander. This has been the most exciting development in my TV history: finally opening the floodgates to the vastness of international television, which will only grow with the addition of titles streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

Reality Television

There was, however, still one avenue I had not tapped: reality television. Sure, I found the occasional show I enjoyed, like American Inventor, Wickedly Perfect, and The Scholar. But none of those lasted a long time, and I almost always felt as though watching them was a waste of time.

But I eventually opened my mind and began not to dismiss reality TV. My interest in the genre came from a course on reality and documentary television I took in graduate school, a course that traced reality television from its origins in documentary film, allowing me to see the social implications behind the drama. For the course, I wrote a paper comparing and contrasting The Amazing Race and Globe Trekker as examples of travel television, leading me to start watching both shows semiregularly. I then delved a bit into reality television through other shows like Shark Tank, Dream School, and The Quest.

It should not have surprised me that I liked The Quest so much. It was the first reality show for which I’d heard the casting announcement while it was still in development; since they were looking for fantasy fans, I found out about the show through both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fansites. But there was another part. Some elements of the show reminded me of Legends of the Hidden Temple, a children’s game show that had captured my imagination (and had given me a few nightmares) as a kid. The Quest helped tie my television present to my television past.

Television Memories, Television History

When I think of TV, more little snippets stick out in my mind:

  • Watching the weekly Zoog Movie when my family finally received the Disney Channel.
  • Studying for my driver’s license exam and already knowing that you could get a DUI for operating, not actually driving, a vehicle thanks to the Everybody Loves Raymond episode “The Shower.”
  • Watching the first season finales of American Idol and Survivor because everybody was talking about them.
  • Becoming a fan of music group E.S. Posthumus thanks to the haunting opening titles of Cold Case.
  • Getting over my fear of medical dramas through Call the Midwife.
  • Saturday Night Live during the 2008 election.
  • The shock of watching Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings lose on his record 75th appearance.
  • Watching Who’s Line Is It Anyway? and the 1998 reboot of Candid Camera with my mom.
  • Watching Commander in Chief, Numb3rs, and Close to Home with my family – a rare occasion since my dad does not watch much scripted television.
  • John Carpenter calling his dad to tell him he’d won $1,000,000 on Who Wants To Be a Millionnaire?
  • Not being able to peel my eyes away from the opening titles of The Honorable Woman.
  • Concerts, including Celtic Woman, on PBS.
  • Watching the local news every morning while getting ready for high school.
  • Voting for Dancing with the Stars during the seasons I watched it.
  • The finales that really got to me: JAG, Lost, Breaking Bad, and the first season of Broadchurch.
  • Watching my first episode of NCIS after years of not following the program and not feeling as though any time had passed.
  • Finally starting to watch shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Rockford Files, and The Twilight Zone – and happily learning that they live up to their reputations.
  • Getting introduced to the wonderful talent of Ernie Kovacs and George Burns and Gracie Allen through one of my graduate school courses.

If you are what you watch, it’s safe to say that what you watch says a lot about you. I watch Lost because it involves so many elements that intrigued me: issues of science and faith, ancient cultures, time travel, and everything in between. I watch Everybody Loves Raymond because I love that it shows a family who squabbles but at the end of the day still loves each other. I watch Downton Abbey because, sometimes, I long for another era, even if I know that the era might not be as elegant as it’s portrayed on television. I watch The Good Wife and Enlightened because I love complicated and flawed protagonists for whom I still root. I watch Fringe because it allows me to maintain casual interest in many scientific concepts, including parallel universes, long after losing academic interest in them. I watch Once Upon a Time because I love new takes on old stories. And so on.

I could easily go on and explain why I watch other shows, both ones that I’ve referenced here and the plethora that remain unnamed. But many times, the answer is simple: because it’s a good show.

My personal television history is one of exploration; it has pushed me beyond my interests, prompting me to watch shows like Breaking Bad, Borgen, and Rectify, none of which have premises that would have drawn me in initially. It really boils down to this: I like a good story, and I’m willing to go hunting for it.

But even more than exploration, my personal history of TV is one of enthusiasm. When I was watching Doctor Who’s “The Angels Take Manhattan,” my roommate walked by me and spotted me clutching a pillow, staring intently at the TV with my hand over my mouth. She laughed. “’I’ve never seen anyone actually stare at the TV like that,” she remarked.

Whatever I watch, I don’t watch casually. It could be a combination of my personality and my academic training. But what I do know is that this enthusiasm has shaped – and will continue to shape – my personal TV history.

What’s your personal television history?

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