Monday, March 07, 2005

Cultural Currency

"Lesbian Nazi Hookers Abducted by UFOs and Forced Into Weight Loss Programs" -- Weird Al Yankovic in UHF
I was watching TV and I had a thought ... Yes, surprising I know television actually inspiring some thought, but hey.

The biggest difference culturally between my generation, and everyone who will come after?


No, seriously. When I was a kid I grew up watching WLVI Channel 56, WSBK Channel 38, and WXNE Channel 25. There was no UPN, or WB, or Fox yet, and basic cable didnt have the programming to draw my attention til years later.

I think maybe you can tell how strong an impression these stations made on me by the fact that I can remember their call letters 20 years later.

UHF TV was the realm of the re-run, and the bad movie. All the UHF tv stations ran cartoons from the 60's and 70s in the early morning, then again after school. After cartoons they ran reruns of "classic" shows from the 50's through the 70's. Then, starting at 8 o'clock, they ALL ran cheezy movies, mostly comedies and horror movies from the 40's through the 70's.

The thing is, every UHF station around the country ran pretty much the same stuff. Sure different stations ran different shows, but in pretty much eveyr town across america kids were watching the same shows that their parent s had watched as kids and teenagers.

The Brady Bunch was produced from 1969-1974, ending its run shortly before I was born, but "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha" is as much a part of my childhood as it was the childhood of the generation before me, and the early adulthood of the generation before that. Certainly the cheaply produced cartoon classics of the '60s like Yogi, Woody Woodpecker, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Top Cat and Josie and the pussycats were in there as well. Hell, even Andy Griffith, Pettycoat Junction, Mr Ed, My Three Sons etc... were all part of my cultural currency, because of re-runs.

Oh and the movies... man those movies. I remember, all in one week, watching "Cheaper by the dozen", "Yours Mine and Hours", "Them", and "Salems Lot".

Honestly it didn't matter if the shows, cartoons, and movies were bad or good, the common thread between them was that they were all CHEAP to rebroadcast them; but there was an unintended consequence to this.

You see these were the same cartoons, the same sitcoms, and the same movies the kids of the sixties grew up with, and then the kids of the 70's and 80's after them. These were, in effect, shared cultural experiences between us kids, and our parents, and to some extent our grandparents.

The syndication boom didn't really start until '87, and it was this boom, combined with the rise of basic cable, that brought about the end of traditional UHF television.

In 1986, WXNE was bought out by Fox and a few months later became the first FOX affiliate in the northeast WFXT; but even then, FOX programming didnt start til 7pm, with "Married with Children".

At the same time, the re-runs during the day started being replaced by DIY/Home improvement shows, and the proliferation of daytime talk shows.

Sure the Oprahs and Phil Donahues, were on the major network affiliates forever, but when Richard Bey, Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Ricki Lake etc... got their shows, they were all syndicated out to local UHF stations. All of these new options were offered at the same cost as classic re-runs, but they were capturing higher ratings.

Also at the same time, basic cable was broadening to include specialty channels like discovery, history, the DIY/Home and garden channels, and of course all day news.

The UHF stations couldn't keep up with basic cable, and they either became superstations like WGN, or they started folding. This was happening all over the country at the same time, and it created the opportunity for the syndcation companies, and the content warehousers like Time Warner/Tribune, Fox, and Paramount to start buying up, or networking, local stations all over the country.

Finally, in '94-'96; with the Tribune-TimeWarner gigantosyndicate-network the WB, buying at least one UHF station in every major market in America (including WLVI 56), traditional UHF TV was fully and finally dead.

Coincidentally, "Married with Children" ushered the mega syndication era in, and the WB finished the job, ushering "Married With Children" out as it became a market force. With it's final episode in '97, the last vestige of the cheezy rerun based networks was gone, and the slick Dawson Creek/PartyofFive/7th Heaven/GenericFamilyTeenDramedy became the dominant entertainment for kids and teens.

What really died when the WB came in however, was that shared cultural currency, and cultural continuity provided by the three generations of re-runs that I had grown up on. I know the monkees and the Brady Bunch as well as (or probably better than) my mother does, but how many 18-24 year olds do? And how many of the shows that the 18-24 year olds know do I know, or does my mother know?

And I'm not even "middle aged" yet...

We've lost these common cultural touchstones. Even though these are infinitely cheesy shows, they gave us a point of reference across generations.

I miss the cheezy re-runs, not because of the shows themselves, but because of that cultural connection. There really is no replacement for this in todays pop culture, and unfortunately, I don't see anything like them coming in the future.