Inadvertently but unavoidably, the post on music that reminds me of my childhood had more than enough context to reveal my approximate age. Unlike most of my peers, though, I didn’t grow up with cable TV. Nickelodeon was a rare delight, watched only when visiting my grandparents. This also meant that I didn’t grow up watching MTV, or even VH-1.
But, contrary to what Buzzfeed would have you believe, it was possible to have a childhood without Nickelodeon. It was even possible to be a teenager without MTV.
Although our rabbit-ear’d TV did offer an alternative…
I’d flip through our handful of channels, the numbers climbing quickly. I’d reach the snow line of Channel 23, above which static crept into everything. I’d hike past the preacher-stations of Channels 40 and 42, twin monasteries echoing with febrile testifications, their acolytes lining the path and tugging on sleeves to beg for coins. But just a little higher and, if the weather was just right and the antennae were positioned just so, I could see Channel 47, home of a station called The Box.
The Box showed nothing but music videos. This was already surprising for a broadcast TV station. But, unlike MTV, The Box showed music videos on demand.
It worked like so: Most of the time, you’d see a sort of menu. There’d be four or so lines per screen, each line with the title and artist of a music video in their selection. They had a little bit of everything – TLC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prodigy, Korn. Each video had a three-digit code. And at the bottom of the screen, a 1-800 number. You called the number, paid by credit card, put in the three-digit code, and in half an hour or so, they’d play the video you requested. Of course, tempted as I may have been sometimes, I never stole my parents’ credit cards to request a video. So, instead, I just had to sit and hope real hard that something I liked would come on. And that I’d be able to see it through the static when it happened.
It felt so secret, somehow. The way we could get the channel on some days and couldn’t see it at all on others, the way the music was all chosen by people, the way you never saw a veejay or a talking head, the way they played music videos I was surprised you were allowed to show on television before 10 pm…. I didn’t know what a pirate radio station was at the time, but if I had, it’s precisely what I would’ve thought The Box must be.
My favorite video was probably “Three Little Pigs” by Green Jellö. It’s one of the few that I can really remember watching. And what wasn’t to like? It was funny! It was claymation! It had twisted fairy tales just like The Stinky Cheese Man, which was the coolest book around at the time. It had all sorts of Adult Situations! There were BUTTS! I didn’t dislike the song itself, but the video — and the sheer fact I could see it at all — was amazing to me.
YouTube now makes this all sound incredibly quaint. As high-speed broadband became mainstream, it became easier to download, and eventually stream, any music video you wanted, whenever you wanted. The Box’s very principle of playing only music videos is exactly what guaranteed its demise: MTV and VH-1 were glad to just stop playing music videos and switch to other content. And yet, YouTube has preserved it:
I was fascinated by the interactivity of it all. The idea of being able to request television just like you could request a song on the radio was amazing to me. Picking a video from a list is such a trivial degree of interactivity now, compared with our present ability not just to watch anything at any time, but so easily create our own media in response. Watching The Box had all the same randomness and uncertainty of radio — even moreso, because the kinds of stations that played “All I Wanna Do” probably weren’t going to follow it up with “Put ‘Em On The Glass.” And yet, even though some people in suits somewhere decided what selections to offer at all, actual people still got to pick what was shown.
I remember trying to imagine a way for all television to work like The Box: You put in the code of a TV show you wanted to see, maybe even a specific episode, and they’d play it! No, that wouldn’t do; one person couldn’t pick a whole 30 minute or hour long show That’s a long time, if what they picked sucks. So I revised my idea: it would have to be majority rules — whatever got the most votes got played. But wait, adults would still just request the news all the time, or Lawrence Welk or something. And they were the ones with the credit cards, so we’d never see cartoons again. So I revised my idea again, imagining that in The Future, everyone would have free cable, with a channel just for news, a channel just for cartoons, a channel just for science shows, etc. The Cartoon Channel would have all the Nickelodeon cartoons, and all the Saturday morning cartoons from every station, every single Looney Tunes ever and every single Disney movie. And, instead of a TV Guide, they’d just mail everyone a list of all the TV show codes for all the different stations, with every station’s phone number. And voting, of course, would be free. It would be so much easier on everyone, I thought: stations like ABC wouldn’t have such a muddle of programming. Cartoons in the morning, soap operas all afternoon, news in the evening, dramas or comedies at night, stupid infomercials late late at night. In The Future, nobody would vote for stupid infomercials, and you’d never see them again. In The Future, you’d only get to see the best stuff. In The Future, you’d be able to watch TGIF on Tuesday afternoon.
But I realized, being a kid who was deeply fond of traditions and rituals — whether as big and meaningful as how we celebrated Christmas, or as personal and immaterial as only eating Spaghetti-Os with the Spaghetti-Os spoon — that I’d miss looking forward to certain shows at certain times. And that, if TV only ever played the shows I liked, and didn’t have inexplicable marathons of The Beverly Hillbillies once in a while, I’d always be forced to choose between watching my favorite show… and everything else. Favorite show, or playing with Legos? Favorite show, or going outside? Favorite show, or playing Nintendo? Harsh.
While I was obviously way off the mark in most ways as a kid — this being a few years before “Internet” was even a household word — I suppose it wasn’t too bad a guess, for the time. And I suppose I’m now faced with an even harsher constant choice: The Internet or Everything Else. I’d do well to remember the value of stepping away from the Internet, Font Of All Knowledge And Fun though it may be, and looking forward to occasional other pastimes.
But that’s the downside of being an adult. You can, to some degree, decide what you want to do and when you want to do it — and that even extends to our media, nowadays. However, that makes it so much harder to be surprised, so much harder to feel like you’re stumbling upon a secret. You get to decide what’s appropriate and inappropriate for yourself. You don’t have to be sneaky anymore — which means you don’t get to be sneaky, either.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch “Baby Got Back” in incognito mode.