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Reminiscing Upshur County – History of Television

By Betty Bivins Cook

As I perused the mail that was deposited in my box today, I spotted an envelope from Etex. Knowing that it wasn’t time for my bill to arrive, I opened the envelope to see what it contained. Not surprisingly, it was a letter reminding me that my Legacy cable TV that I’ve been subscribed to for years was being phased out, effective Dec. 13 of this year. They issued a friendly reminder that I’d need to call their business office to switch my contract to the streaming service or make whatever changes I wished to prior to that date. They don’t even want their equipment back; the letter said to dispose of it.

This was not new information, as my children had let me know several months ago that this change was coming. I just wasn’t eager to deal with it yet, as I haven’t educated myself in the intricacies of using streaming services through the new Fire Stick my son installed and set up on my TV. It’s been hooked up for a while; I’ve just procrastinated learning to use the thing.

At any rate, the letter brought to mind how many changes there have been in my lifetime regarding television. It’s rather mind boggling when I think about it.

Television as a concept was the work of many individuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, it’s development was interrupted by World War II. After the end of the war, the technology expanded rapidly and became an important mass medium for advertising, propaganda, and entertainment.

I was born in 1944, right in the middle of this new addition to the American home.

The first television I remember seeing belonged to Mrs. Ella Fenlaw who lived just down the road from us and attended church with my family at Harmony United Methodist Church. This was in 1950 or 51. That unit was in a very large wooden cabinet, but had a rather small round screen, probably about 12 inches across. It picked up Channel 7, but the picture was so snowy that it wasn’t much fun to watch. A radio program was just about as good.

The next television I saw belonged to my Uncle Charlie  Bivins, Daddy’s brother. It was a portable unit with a larger screen than Mrs. Fenlaw’s, probably 15 inches or so. As I remember, it picked up Channel 7 and maybe another. I went down to Uncle Charlie’s house with his son, Junior, a few times and watched some shows with him. The picture was considerably better on this television and more enjoyable to watch.

After Daddy’s sister, my Aunt Nora Bivins married, she and Uncle Walter Henson purchased a television for their home. This one had a 21-inch or so screen and picked up Channels 3, 7, and 12. Channel 7 came in the best. The others were rather unreliable. Our family went down the road to their house on Sunday nights where the adults watched a show Daddy just loved, “Victory at Sea.” We children didn’t find this very interesting. When “The Honeymooners,” starring Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows, Art Carney and Joyce Randolph came on, it caught our attention a little more.

It was some time before a television finally came to our home. In 1956 Daddy had a co-worker who had purchased one, but decided he didn’t want to keep it. We were thrilled to have it, and Mother and Daddy used that TV for years, until sometime after I married.

Other televisions came and went from their home after that, in progressively more attractive cabinets, but still black and white. A color unit would not come until the 1980’s.

After my husband and I moved back to Gilmer, Mother and Daddy came to our new house for lunch one Sunday. We had upgraded from our old black and white TV to a good-sized television in a beautiful, decorative, cabinet; best of all, it was color. After lunch, we turned the TV on and watched “The Andy Griffith Show” which was in color. At that time, some of the shows we watched were still filmed in black and white, but that one had moved into color technology. Daddy was enthralled and it wasn’t too long before he went and bought a new color television.

One feature of this pre-cable era that stands out in my mind is that programming ended at midnight, when the television screen went to a test pattern. Programming resumed at 5 or 6 a.m. Many were the times my late husband, Royce, went to sleep in his chair while watching the TV, only to wake when I shut it off, asking why I turned off the show he was watching, which had gone on to the test pattern as he snoozed. Another memory is of the many times he was outside, tweaking the position of the antenna to try and improve the picture, usually when a special program was coming on. This could be a challenge as our home sat in a low area and even with the antenna, reception was often sketchy. 

Still, at this time, the televisions were pretty basic. We were the remote control, choosing what we wanted to watch from the TV Guide magazine, and getting up from our comfortable chair to walk across the living room to the TV to change the channel, adjust the volume, or occasionally adjust the color or clarity of the picture.
A plus was that we all knew which day and what time our favorite shows came on without having to search.

We didn’t have remote control technology until the first satellite service, Prime Star, came to our area around 1991. There was nothing like the number of channels that were available later, but it was still quite an improvement over the basic 3, 6, 7 and 12 we’d had before. We could change the channel with the supplied remote control, but still had to manually adjust the volume. Prime Star became Direct TV in 1994. We later subscribed to Dish Network which debuted in 1996.

While the satellite services were a wonderful improvement, they still had some glitches, the largest of which was bad weather. It was a guarantee that any time it came up a storm, we were going to miss some programming as the picture became pixelated and fuzzy, often going away completely. It was so aggravating when this happened, especially when our trusty VCR was set to record something.

Sometime during those years, we got our first television that had a remote control. Then we could change channels with the satellite remote and adjust the volume with the TV remote. Finally, we were liberated from having to get up and walk to the TV to adjust the volume!

Then, one day, Etex unveiled their own cable service which, at the time, was a lot cheaper than the satellite services.  We switched right over and enjoyed more reliable television service.

Our faithful VCR had become obsolete, and we supplemented our programming with DVDs rented from Netflix that arrived via our trusty local mail carrier. I never dreamed I’d see the day that DVDs would be obsolete.

Soon, we had a TV that could be controlled with the Etex remote, and we could control both channel searches and volume with one remote. Even better was the DVR which enabled us to digitally record shows to watch later without the bulky video tapes of previous years.

Over the years, the cost did creep up as additional channels were added and eventually exceeded what we’d spent on satellite, but most of the family enjoyed the variety of programming available. Best of all, everyone knew how to use the remote.

Then came the advent of Roku, Amazon Fire Sticks, and Smart TVs that had one of those services built in. My children embraced this technology and often mentioned how much I’d enjoy streaming television if I’d just try it. My son even purchased my first Fire Stick for my TV and set me up with Netflix as the DVD service had ended. He and my daughter were the only ones who ever used it, and it went out of date without my ever attempting to master it.

That brings me full circle to where I am now. I have choices, including streaming Etex, or going back to satellite, but all of these options are pricey, so I’m going to bite the bullet and try to learn to use the Fire Stick and use other streaming services. My daughter has gone over the basics with me a couple of times, but her lessons haven’t stuck. I am probably going to have to go old-school and make notes on the steps to finding something to watch. I guess eventually it will become familiar and easy to navigate, but right now, it is daunting.

At my age, learning new technology is harder than it used to be. I am just now learning to use a tablet to read, check my email, and scan Facebook. My overtaxed brain isn’t looking forward to adding more to its burden.  Strangely enough, in spite of all the programs available nowadays, I find myself watching primarily the same 5 or 6 channels. Most of the new network programming doesn’t appeal to me at all. Neither do the majority of the many other channels. So I frequently find myself turning off the TV and picking up a good book — just as I did before television days.

I’d like to think that this latest change in television technology will be the last I have to make, but I don’t think I’ll count on it. We’ll see how it all goes and hope that I have the patience to navigate this new addition to my world.



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