steve ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*During his 1978 soul classic, “’Cause I Love You,” singer Lenny Williams, narrating one of the most dramatic R&B monologues known to man, wearily says that to take his mind off the woman with whom he is desperately in love, he busied himself at home with all sorts of activities, including watching television “until TV went off.”

I always found that line funny, particularly in the anguished fashion Williams delivered it. However, when I heard the song the other day for the first time in years, I imagined, to young people today,   the lyric  taking on a surreal quality—like the impossibly crazy idea of surfing online until you reach the end of the Internet.

In this age of  everything 24/7, it may be hard for some to fathom, but indeed there was a time when, at the end of every day, television went off. I mean,  off.  If you are a certain age and/or lived in a certain region of America, you remember this.

Mama usually didn’t allow us up past, say, 10:30PM. If for some reason we were awake beyond that, it was a big deal, and not just for us. I remember how mutinous it sounded when a boy in my fifth grade class one morning bragged that he routinely stayed up until his family’s TV screen went fuzzy.

 Wow wee. What was next for this kid? Smoking behind the garage? Carrying around a used, dried-up rubber in his wallet? Staying up late—on a school night, no less–was like getting to sip Manischewitz table wine on New Year’s Eve.  It felt so grown up.

In any case, in the mid ‘60s the three network affiliates in Oklahoma City, where I was raised (WKY-TV (NBC), KWTV (CBS) and KOCO-TV (ABC), would begin wrapping it up at about 11:30 PM.

The beginning of the end of a programming day would include low-budget public service commercials that felt like walking down a deserted, spooky, electronic alleyway. The ads got lonelier and cheaper by the minute before finally coming to what for me was television’s most ominous moment: the FBI Report.

Lasting 15 minutes or so, the FBI Report’s production amounted to a series of black and white mug shots of men and the occasional woman that law enforcement wanted to have a word with—bank robbers, embezzlers, killers—accompanied by a flat, no-nonsense voice narrating who these people were, their crimes, where they were last seen and whether they might be Armed and Extremely Dangerous.

Children pay attention to the oddest things. I couldn’t help but notice the disheveled state of the criminals in their photos. Did nobody have access to a comb at the time of their previous arrest?  All of them needed a shave. Facial scars, scowls—I handed down my verdict immediately: These folk are  guilty.

The FBI Report would scare the absolute shit of me, but I couldn’t look away. I anxiously watched, curled up on the couch in my pajamas, wanting to check the lock and chain on our front door but too afraid to move.

Following the FBI Report came a pleasant but businesslike voice accompanying a screen-sized image of a TV transmission tower, announcing that said station had come to “the end of its broadcast day.” It all sounded so… final.

The nail in the midnight coffin was the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and footage of an American flag proudly waving in the wind. After that, on the screen appeared a test pattern, followed after a few minutes by white fuzz.  TV was officially gone,   down for maintenance.  Decades later I read somewhere that the purpose of  that  audio beeeeeeeeeep with the test pattern was to annoy viewers  into turning off their TVs.

In the 21st century, to escape TV you HAVE  to turn it off.   The 24 hour medium, in various broadcast configurations, has become,  for better or worse, society’s conscience. It is friend, family, babysitter, lover, enemy.  Television is a drug.

The Lenny Williams in that R&B monologue would have had  an easier time medicating himself with today’s nonstop TV, although its omnipresence didn’t work for Bruce Springsteen in 1992.  During   his song, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On), ” in the sinister shadow of all those channels—we have more than twice that number today–Springsteen lost his girl and ultimately his mind.

I can relate, Bruce: I still remember the time as a kid when I fell asleep after gaping at another of  those FBI Reports. Had a horrific nightmare that a woman in a mug shot broke into our home and stole my beloved silver Stingray bicycle.  That morning, over Cheerios, I told mama about it. Amused, she asked what the woman looked like.  All I remember, I said, was that her hair was a mess. And she needed a shave.

 Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]