Gateway to geekdom: In praise of the black and white television set

In TV by Tanzi0 Comments

The digital age has killed a lot of technology from our youth, some of which has had a resurgence in recent years. Whether due to nostalgia, hipster irony or a genuine preference for the old ways we’ve seen records make a comeback, cassette tapes are still out there at least as a promotional item and some indie movies are even released on VHS tapes. Old video game systems are popular with collectors and gamers alike, and a few hardcore collectors are still into 8 track. There’s one technology that probably won’t make a comeback, despite being a huge influence on so many of us: the portable black and white TV set.

Let’s face it, most of us who are into science fiction and horror movies weren’t exactly the most popular kids in school. We preferred to spend our weekends watching TV rather than out running around in the fresh air and sunshine. And our parents certainly weren’t going to allow us to watch some shitty monster movie on the living room set when the game was on. The solution was the cheapest possible small TV, and in the 70s and 80s that meant a 12″ black and white, usually purchased second hand.  The 1977 Sears Wishbook Christmas catalog lists a 12″ black and white set at $77.95 (Lowest price ever!) but a 13″ color set would run you a whopping $266.95, so not many of us kids were going to get a color set.

And since most of us had a second hand or hand me down set, there were usually problems. The rotary channel knobs often broke off, despite the best efforts of all parents yelling at their kids to not flip the channels so violently. In my case the VHF knob broke off entirely so I had to use a pair of pliers to turn the metal shaft. The pliers themselves were old and rusted, with no insulating handle so about one out of every ten channel changes I’d get a nasty shock. We’re talking a deep, vibrating shock running up the arm, all the way to the elbow, not a little static zap.

In those pre-cable days of the 1970’s we had maybe 4 or 5 channels on VHF, plus another 3 or 4 on UHF. VHF was home to the networks (ABC,NBC, CBS and PBS were all we had in those days) but UHF was where the good stuff was, the independent stations that filled their air time with shlocky movies purchased in bulk. They often had a host to introduce the movies, either a Dialing for Dollars format, or if you were lucky you’d get a horror host. The fact that we saw everything in black and white made the host blend in with the movies, and made the age of the movie irrelevant. For the longest time I had no idea that most of the Hammer horror movies were in lurid color, and it really didn’t matter to me. Looney Tunes cartoons were just as monochromatic as the Three Stooges and Abbot and Costello. The black and white set was an equalizer, it removed any prejudice we might have developed for color.

Dr Paul Bearer, host of Creature Feature on WTOG-44 out of Tampa, FL. Watching in black and white just made him seem like part of those old movies.

The freedom of having the TV in our bedroom allowed us to develop our taste for the weird and abnormal. The weekly ritual of combing through the new TV Guide with a pen, circling the things we wanted to watch, was now solely for our own benefit. There was no need to determine if your family had a conflicting show on when you wanted to watch Night Gallery.  It also allowed us to stay up way too late. I remember staying up to watch Letterman every night, when his show started at 12:30 am, after Carson. If Letterman was a repeat or something particularly lurid was on the CBS Late Movie I’d watch that. I’m pretty sure that’s where I first encountered Gargoyles, a movie that to this day still gives me the creeps. I’m sure watching while in a state of half-sleep had something to do with it.

It was way scarier in black and white, trust me.

These days everyone has a giant 4K flat screen in their living room and another in the bedroom. Everything is available all the time, we’ve lost the feeling that we’ve discovered something special and rare, viewed through a 12″ portal to a world without color. Is it better now? Well there’s no going back, I’m not about to hunt down an old black and white set with a busted knob and electrocute myself trying to change channels. In fact, all TV broadcasts are in digital now so the set wouldn’t work without an adapter.  We’ve undoubtedly gained far more than we’ve lost, but maybe the things we’ve lost have a value of their own.

Did you have a black and white set in your bedroom? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear your memories.




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