(The first part of this post has been sitting in my drafts file since at least 2015. I used part of it for a post at my radio station’s blog, back when I used to contribute to that, but this is its first time here. I have added some relevant links that have appeared since I first wrote this.)
I am a big fan of Mitchell Hadley’s It’s About TV, especially his posts digging into old editions of TV Guide. They’re the spiritual cousin of my One Day in Your Life posts. The big events get attention in history class, but perhaps we can better understand how it really felt to live while those big events were unfolding if we imagine them projected against the backdrop of life’s daily details. After all, that’s how we actually experienced them.
There are two kinds of TV Guide posts at It’s About TV—discussions of a particular week’s issue and day-by-day summaries of the listings themselves. Educational programs and news early in the morning, soap operas and game shows all day (with a break for local news at noontime), cartoons and off-network repeats for kids in the late afternoon (and a surprising number of movies—it was once common practice for stations to air a movie from, say, 3:30 to 5:00), network primetime, and a couple of shows or a movie after the late local news before sign-off.
The rhythm of our days is defined more by television than we realize, I think. For many Midwesterners, the 10:00 local news marks the end of the evening and time to go to bed, so you get in your eight hours before rising at 6 for another day. When I travel in the Eastern time zone, I never get used to the idea that primetime is an hour later out there.
Television used to define the rhythm of our days in other ways. During the week, the TV stations marched in step, with a different program every 30 or 60 minutes. Saturdays were not entirely like that. Game of the Week started at 1:00 and got over sometime between 3 and 4, and it would be left to the local affiliates to pick up afterward. Ours would frequently start an episode of Star Trek right after the game and show it without commercials so it would end at 4:00. One of our local stations would occasionally bust out an episode of Twilight Zone as a time-filler, and it was always a treat to stumble upon it, unlisted in TV Guide.
Late at night, TV stations stopped bowing to the tyranny of the half-hour. They’d start a movie at 11:40 or 12:20, as if to say, “It’s late, we’re off the clock, who cares.” Late-night TV looked different, too. There were not nearly as many regional and national commercials as there are now. Most of the ads you saw late at night were for local businesses, produced by local stations. It was common for a single business, often a car dealer, to sponsor the late movie, and get a spot—often repetitive, silly, or annoying—in every break. You’d see a lot of public service announcements, too, often on grainy film scratched from repeated use, or slightly out of focus.
I liked to watch the TV stations sign off, play the National Anthem, maybe put up color bars, or just go to static. At that point, there was nothing left to watch, and you might as well go to bed. Or fall asleep with the light of the unblinking screen until the early news, Sunrise Semester, or some noisy cartoon restarts the rhythm for yet another day.
One More Different Thing: I was sorry to learn of the passing this week of Earl Thomas Conley. During the 1980s, only Alabama and Ronnie Milsap recorded more #1 country hits than Conley. His 1981 #1 hit “Fire and Smoke” is an all-time fave of mine, as is the insanely great “Your Love’s on the Line” from 1983. As a country-radio jock during the first half of the 80s, I knew that whenever a new Conley record showed up in the studio, it was going to be good. While I didn’t love every one of them, few stars of the time had a higher batting average with me.
When a new generation hit at the end of the 80s—the Class of ’89, which included Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson—Conley’s star dimmed, but he stayed on the road for years thereafter. He’d suffered from dementia in recent years and died at 77.