Walter Mencken 9:21 p.m., Oct. 20
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Memories of Analog TV: The 1980s
My memories of cable TV were getting fuzzier as the later years went on because they were expanding the channel lineups from 25 to 36 to 52 channels by the end of the 80s. At the end of the 80s, Cox was building its fiber optic cable network that would enable it to pipe in hundreds of channels in a digital way by the end of the 90s.
But going back to 1980, this was the year cable companies began to get serious about adding satellite channels and expand their channel capacity to add them.
I remember picking up one of the TV trade magazines and they had a satellite television channel expo or something that showcased a lot of networks that I never heard of before. I discovered what is now Nickelodeon, USA, Showtime, WTBS, WGN, and many now defunct early attempts such as ARTS, CBS Cable, Spotlight (which was carried on Times Mirror in Escondido), and more.
On June 1st, CNN made its debut on cable channel 21. With TV Guide ignoring the cable channels, some San Diego business started up a competetor guide called Tuned In in September of 1980. This magazine carried listings for ESPN, CNN, HBO, Showtime, ITV, Christian Communiations Network, Public Access, KWHY, KMEX, KSCI, and a few others that TV Guide didn't carry at first, as well as articles on local personalities and shows such as "Disasterpiece Theaters" with Sal-U-Lloyd (get it?) on channel 6. It was a show that sort of inspired Mystery Science Theater 3000, but the host made fun of the films by adding joke captions and sound effects in the movie scenes. That used to run on either Friday or Saturday nights, I forget which. Tuned In folded in 1985. By that time, TV Guide was carrying the listings for cable channels.
More terrestrial channels were launched in the 80s. KSCI's Poway translator on channel 48 launched sometime in 1978, but I'm not sure of the year. There was also another translator in Poway on channel 57 that relayed KBSC's (channel 52 in Los Angeles) programming, even during the days when it carried ONTV, a pay TV service that cost some $20 a month, but ONTV sometimes featured new wave and punk videos between movies and specials. In 1987, KBSC dropped ONTV and relaunched itself as a Telemundo flagship station as KVEA.
In 1981, XHAS channel 33 was launched from Tijuana. It originally aried the Televisa 2 feed. In 1990, XHAS picked up the Telemundo affilliation for San Diego. In 1990, a new Tijuana station, XHUAA channel 57, was launched and it picked up the Televisa 2 feed. That and the KVEA relay were co-channel interferring with each other for most of the 90s.
In October of 1980, Cox began carrying Showtime pay TV. Some subscribers figured out how to get Showtime for free. All they had to do is to subscribe to HBO to get the converter box, unscrew the two front screws that held the chassis inside the box, pull out the chassis, locate the orange wire, snip it off, and Showtime came in unscrambled. That also unscrambled all of the channels. In 1981, Cox went after the Showtime thieves by using some kind of testing equipment to locate the homes that were getting Showtime without paying for it, and had the police arrest the occupants. Cox started showing commercials where a nerdy looking man was sent into prison in a cable theft PSA. One of the occupants said to him, "Hey you, preppy, what are you in for?" The nerdy man said, "I rigged my converter box to get HBO and Showtime." The prison occupants began to laugh at him.
Since then, the pay channels were moved to the digital tiers.
In 1982, Cox added Cinemax on cable 17. That was the third pay channel that it added.
In the summer of 1982, I as well as many others were watching the Los Angeles Laker away games (except when they were in San Diego because at the time, the city used to host The Clippers). But in Saturday nights at 8pm, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, was getting a lot of water cooler talk and was becoming a phoenomenom. Sometime in July, the entire Movie Macabre show was shown in 3-D, resulting in some people to get too hot after viewing Elvira in 3-D.
Then in August, we had some good news and some bad news. Good news? Cox added WTBS. Bad news? They dropped KABC from the lineup. Great decision.
Even worse news. in September, Cox dropped KHJ so it could make room for KUSI, which just launched that month.
This caused many people to write to the local papers to express their outrage at missing Elvira, Lakers, and even the just-launched 5-day airing of "Eight is Enough!" One letter writer wrote in once a week for a month listing all of the movies KHJ aired that he didn't watch. To this day, this was Cox Cable's biggest blunder in the history of San Diego businesses.
Even more worse news. Cox launched The Playboy Channel on 22. It replaced the SPN network (Satellite Programming Network) that featured foreign movies with English subtitles, sometimes outraging the viewers whenever the subtitle showed the "F" and "S" words. Playboy caused a lot of stir amongst the cable subscribers because, like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, the sound was not scrambled like ONTV did for its terrestrial pay service. Cox began installing channel 22 blocking devices for its customers who requested it.
In 1983, Cox added yet another pay channel: Disney on channel 18, and Pay Per View movies and Padres pay packages on channel 21. It also shifted KCST 39 to cable 7, which had WTBS on it for a while, but WTBS was shifted to 27. USA, which was shown part time on cable 2, was on 24 hours a day on 2. TNN was launched on 29. MTV was launched on 30 after years of requests for it, back when it once showed new wave videos. CNN moved to 31. I forgot what was launched on 28. CNN Headline news was on 32. When KTTY 69 was launched on analog 69, it showed up on cable 36. KSCI was shown on channel 4 from September of 1982 (shared with KNBC), then moved to 35 in 1983, and it lasted until September of 1986. In 1983, Cox shifted KNXT to cable 24 for Captain Kangaroo, then it disappearred without any fanfare. Mission Cable 2 was shifted in 1983 to 24 and then to 33, and then to 4, but I forgot what years.
In 1984, Cox picked up Nickelodeon, Lifetime, and A&E. Cox added Galavision pay TV on 15, but I forgot what year. Christian Communicaions Network folded in 1989. Discovery Channel was picked up in 1986. Prime Ticket was picked up around 1987. TNT was picked up in 1989. American Movie Classics, another pay channel, was launched on 57 in 1986. In 1986, FNN was picked up. In 1989, CNBC replaced FNN, and that was another Cox cable blunder that outraged viewers. In 1991, FNN folded.
In 1985, Nick at Nite was launched showing classic TV shows such as Mr. Ed and Route 66. The problem was that Cox never bothered to carry the network which was, along with KHJ, one of the most requested channels of mine at the time that Cox didn't carry. Nick at Nite was launched in June of 1985 when A&E moved to its own 24-hour channel. Cox shared Nickelodeon with A&E for the longest time because it ran out of channels so they had to share cable 33. Around 1987, Prime Ticket and another channel I forget replaced TNN in 1987.
In 1988 or so, I believe XEWT finally got its channel upgraded to modern day standards as it had been running 50's style with still cards for TV announcements and an antiquated studio up until then. It became a Univision (formerly SIN) affilliate at the time, but in 1990, KBNT channel 19 (it took over low power 17 in 1999) was launched as a Univision affilliate. XEWT returned to a Televisa Locale station.
In 1988, I'm guessing that XEWT went 24 hours on Cox, but not yet on channel 12 until January of 1991. In 1989, KTTY moved to cable 14. FNN and Discovery shared channel 35. KVEA was shown on Cox, but I forgot which channel. I don't know when Galavision was dropped. For a while, Nickelodeon and Prime Ticket shared a channel. If anyone has cable channel lineups from Cox cable in the past, please e-mail me. My cable channel lineup memories are as scrambled as HBO.
In 1987, Cox launched The Rainbow Channel, which was like several channels in one. It aired local origination, BET, Movietime, possibly EWTN, maybe a few other cable channels part time, plus KNBC's news and network shows that KCST didn't air.
In 1986, XETV became one of the first Fox affilliates in the nation. In October, Fox was launched with the nightly Joan Rivers show at 11pm. In April 1987, Fox launched its first prime-time lineup on Sundays. Later that year, it added Saturdays.
In 1988, KCST changed its call letters to KNSD, and added Larry Himmel's live Saturday night show, had a live shot of San Diego with weather and time for its hourly station IDs, and for a while added Roger Hedgecock's daily show in the 1990s.
Weekend late nights on TV were transforming. Don Kirshner's Rock Concert and Burt Sugarman's Midnight Special faded in 1981. In place of "Midnight Special" was "SCTV Network 90" in the Friday night at 12:30 slot. "SCTV" moved from syndication when it was once known as "Second City Television" from 1977 to 1981. The move was good for at least one feature that gained a cult following: Bob and Doug McKenzie's "Great White North" sketches were so popular that it inspired an LP that year. In 1983, "SCTV" moved to Cinemax for its final season. NBC launched "Friday Night Videos" in its place. KIQQ 100.3 in Los Angeles aired the stereo simulcast of "FNV".
Video music was just getting started. MTV launched in August of 1981. HBO started showing videos in 30 minute installments as "Video Jukebox." In 1983, WTBS launched "Night Tracks" on the weekend evenings and late nights. XETV and KGB-FM once ran locally-produced video music shows in the mid 80s. "Night Flight" was launched on the USA Network weekend nights, featuring new wave music, videos, cult movies, rock profiles, video artists, and just too much other stuff to mention.
ABC launched "Fridays" in April of 1980 during the final weeks of what's left of the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players on "Saturday Night Live." "Fridays" featured more outrageous sketches such as depicting simulated drug usage as its basis for laughs, stronger sex humor, stronger political satire, and physical violence. It was also known for featuring many punk rock and new wave artists. The show lasted until 1982 when it was cancelled. ABC lanunched what is now "Nightline" in the 11:30pm slot Mondays-Thursdays back when the Iranian Hostage crisis erupted in November of 1979. When ABC expanded "Nightline" to five days a week, "Fridays" was pushed back to midnight, causing its ratings to drop, mostly because most of its show was opposite "SCTV Network 90" instead of "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Maybe it was best to leave it alone instead of expanding "Nightline" another night.
Showtime got into the late night comedy and variety act by launching its own series "Bizarre" in October of 1980. John Byner hosted. Dave Osbourne (real name Bob Einstein) was an announcer as well as being in some disasterous "Super Dave Osbourne" stunts that not even Evel Knevel would try. The series contained slapstick sketches, monologues, TV parodies, and performances by guest stand-up comics. Interactions between John and members of the studio audience, or show producer Bob Einstein, who often came in to halt a sketch midway through, provided an early example of removing the fourth wall. Much of the humour on the show was considered risque during the original run of the series. Showtime aired the version that included nudity and coarse language. CTV, its Canadian network home, aired a censored version.
It seemed that late night and cable TV was getting risquer compared to the previous decade.
WTBS was launched as a superstation in 1986 (as WTCG back then). One of the stars that came from the channel was Bill Tush, who had his own weekend TBS show for a short while called "Tush". A daily show "Superstation Funtime" aried at NOON Pacific time. It featured a trio of kid show hosts as well as features and cartoons. In 1980, CNN launched a late-night talk show "People Tonight" featuring entertainment news and interviews wtih host Lee Leonard. It aired at 10pm Pacific Time (it often showed a billboard of a now defunct radio station on 105.9 for a while.)
Late night television also had Johnny Carson for the entire 80s, but "Tomorrow", which followed Carson Mon-Thu came to an end in 1982 when it was cancelled to make way for "Late Night with David Letterman." Letterman had another NBC show, but in daytime, called "The David Letterman Show" that began in June of 1980. It originally ran for 90 minutes, as long as another NBC show, "Another World", at the time. NBC was the only network that had two 90-minute daytime shows on its schedule at the same time! It shrunk to 60 minutes in August (as did Another World) when "Texas", another soap opera, debut in the 3pm/2pm ET/CT&PT slot. Letterman's show was cancelled in October, but in 1981, it won two Daytime Emmy Awards.
"Joan Rivers" lasted on Fox for just over a year, then Fox replaced with another show that bombed before giving the late night slot back to its affilliates.
ABC bascially gave up on late nights except for "Nightline" after "Fridays" was cancelled. In the mid 1980s, Dr. Ruth Westheimer gained a cult following with her advice on sex in syndication. It was carried on XETV and KABC in 1986 or 1987. She had a radio show that aired Sunday nights on KGB called "Good Sex with Dr. Ruth." When the show was cancelled, I commented that after they cancelled the show, I had noone to have good sex with.
The 1980s saw its daytime schedule add daily cartoon strips that were more commercial than entertainment, as the shows were designed as 30-minute commercials to sell the toys. The game shows all but vanished from the networks, but many were in syndication. Match Game and Gong Show were in syndication for a while. Wheel of Fortune did better in nighttime than it did in daytime. KCST aired "Wheel" delayed at 3pm instead of airing it at 10am because it ran "Sally Jesse Raphael", a talk show. Talk shows were growing in daytime as it replaced rerun strips of old prime time shows.
"Weird Al" Yankovic did a parody of Greg Kihn's song "Jeopady" in 1984, and his video, which featured Don Pardo, Art Fleming, and the original Jeopary! game show setting, inspired the game show to return in syndication and hosted by Alex Trebek. Greg Kihn's song had noting to do with the game show.
Prime Time networks were shifting from sitcoms, which had gotten dumber in 1980, to adventures in 1983, most of which were inspired by the popularity of Indiana Jones. That's why you saw Tales of the Gold Money, Airwolf, The A-Team, and Riptide in the 80s.
The 80s also had the sitcoms hit a nadir in 1983, but in 1984, Bill Cosby launched "The Cosby Show", which helped out the genre, as well as boosting the struggling shows it followed on NBC, Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court.
While ABC was stuggling in the mid 80s, NBC was finally getting some ratings under the late programmer Brandon Tartikoff. In 1982, he launched what is now considered to be the most successful fall TV launch of any network in my memory: Family Ties, St. Elsewhere, Knight Rider, Silver Spoons, Remington Steele, and Cheers. Though a few other shows failed such as Powers of Matthew Star, and Voyagers, it was still mostly a success as viewers fled ABC's dog schedule for other networks including cable. Taxi moved to NBC for its final season that year.
In 1984, "MTV Cops", which went from the working memo title to a series "Miami Vice" premiered. In 1984, MTS stereo TV became a reality. Terrestrial broadcasters had three additional channels of audio to broadcast: two for stereo, and one for Second Audio Programming. Regular stereo transmission of NBC shows began in 1985. KCST was the first local station to broadcast in stereo in 1985. ABC And CBS followed suit in 1986 and 1987 respectively.
Cable TV was slowing upgrading its system to add more stereo TV channels as most in the early 80s were in mono on the broadband TV side. FM cable was used to transmit MTV and HBO in stereo, so you had to tune in the FM cable channel for the stereo sound. Nowadays, you get stereo TV sound when you tune in a TV channel, and there's no longer an FM cable band for stereo simulcasts anymore because it's now obsolete.
Since the MTS stereo TV standard is associated with the NTSC broadcast standard, it's associated solely with analog TV. Low Power broadcast TV and analog cable TV will be the only ones using NTSC after the full powered TV stations cease analog broadcasting after June 12, 2009. Digital television (ATSC, QAM) uses a different kind of encoding that uses Dolby Digital AC-3 format to provide 5.1 channel surroung sound. We have yet to hear about any HD Radio stations that use 5.1 sound locally.
During the 80s, radios that picked up VHF TV audio were still selling. The only problem was that it didn't pick up the audio from the UHF TV stations, but if you lived close to channel 39's transmitter near Rancho San Diego, you could pick up its audio between channels 9 and 10 or 10 and 11.
Of course the prime time soaps were part of the 80s, mostly because of Kristin shooting J.R. on Dallas in March of 1980. Knots Landing launched months before. Later came Flamingo Road, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and The Colbys.
As for daytime, just about every TV at work had that Luke and Laura wedding showing as workers shifted their lunch to 2pm to catch "General Hospital" on September 17, 1981.
Sitcoms rebounded in the mid 80s, but a lot of the syndicated sitcoms bombed in the ratings and in quality, though some network shows like ALF, Newhart, Golden Girls, Facts of Life (don't laugh, it bombed in the first season, but rebounded with Nancy McKeon replacing four of the cast members), Perfect Strangers, Wonder Years, Doogie Howser, Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Night Court, Tracey Ullman Show, and Married...With Children were just a few of the sitcoms in the decade that didn't stink.
Saturday morning cartoons were overpowered by The Smurfs in popularity on NBC. Pee Wee Herman had a weekly CBS live action kid show in 1986-1991. The Chipmunks returned under the direction of the son of the creator of the Chipmunks, better known as David Seville. Mister T, Punky Brewster, Flintstone Kids, Muppet Babies, Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Richie Rich, Spiderman, Incredible Hulk, Fonz, Rich, The Happy Days Gang, Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley, Plasticman, Pac-Man, and more cartoons came and went on the Saturday morning sked.
Weeknights had KFMB-TV trying something different in the mid 80s. Larry Himmel at Large. San Diego Evening Tribune critic Gus Stevens raved about it. Readers hated it.
XETV tried Uncle Floyd's show from New Jersey in the 12:30am slot in 1982.
That's it for the memories of analog TV of the 80s.