“The Idiot Box”


My family got our first television set in 1955. It looked similar to the model above. My daughter once asked me about “back when you were a child before there was color.” She had seen early television programs in black and white and assumed that there had been no color in the world then. I thought that was a reasonable conclusion for a four year old! Of course our TV was in black and white. In fact, my family didn’t own a color television until 1962 and that was a major extravagance purchased as the family Christmas present.

Portland had only one station, and it went off the air at 11 pm, displaying a symbol on the screen until the morning. Television was generally frowned upon and considered a waste of time. It was also presumed to dumb down viewers, hence the name “idiot box.”  While the content of shows was pretty limited, it was actually trying to tune the picture that turned people into idiots.

The picture continually rolled, either horizontally or vertically. Accordingly, dials adjusted both the horizontal and vertical picture. The signal was weak and needed the addition of “rabbit ears,” a set top antenna. Supposedly one could turn the “ears” different directions to improve the signal. Great disagreements broke out over who had “moved the rabbit ears from their perfect position.” As if there were such a position.

The one advantage to the old set was the absence of a remote control. No one could surf the channels. But of course, there were no channels to surf!

31 thoughts on ““The Idiot Box”

  1. In the NYC/NJ area where we lived, there were channels 2, 4 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13, which was public television, at least by the 1960s-1970s when we were quite the little addicts. 2,4,7 were the mainstream stations that were ABC, NBC, CBS (in no recollected order), and 5, 9, and 11 were things like reruns of old movies, or Merv Griffin.

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      1. When I lived in the UK 1989 onward for a few years, they still had only four stations, and only one went on overnight. I refused to buy a tv license, which you needed to buy every year, since I simply did not watch tv. They were stunned and thought I was lying, but it was true. They would send little vans around with little wire antennas sticking out the top, either blue or the van was blue–something blue–and it detected who was watching tv.


        1. It was something like a hundred bucks a year too, and I resented it on moral grounds, never having had to pay for that before. The van was so very very conspicuous and looked like something from a 50s scifi film, with its antenae that looks like a sort of grid on a pole–


        2. I think those are out-and-out spy devices, to take photos of each property for their online maps etc. I think that’s beyond creepy.


        3. I agree. I just wasn’t raised to live in a world where Big Brother won and people are often complicitous–I was naive enough to figure we were all working towards good things and all getting smarter, and that by the time I was this age, everyone would be smart and the society doing much better.


        4. I think it’s a function of youth–younger animals have more life energy and a natural optimism if they haven’t run into very bad things yet. It has shocked me to have run out of oomph while being in what would be called midlife as opposed to much older–I was very opinionated way back when about What It Was All About.


        5. I know a few young people here who are about 20-24 and they have optimism, good attitude, and jobs, but then again Woodstock NY area has some decent community and closeness to nature which makes it possible. Some are teetotaller vegans, some are party folks. I think that if I had been born about 2000 and grown up in this world of dire rap ‘music’ and violent media and all the world politics and pollution, I would have had a short life as a bewildered thug who would kick every leg I could find in sheer insane frustration. Poor everyone.


        6. I am reading a great book by the Fallows called “Our Towns” which highlights place like your description of Woodstock where things are working for young people. The nihilism you mention that we feed our kids in this culture is deadening.

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        7. And we can’t expect kids to respect one another by emulating the president(whose title I refuse to capitalize as a private protest.)


        8. Sadly, I consider that we used to have Presidents and now it’s a sort of mess that will sort itself out, but probably not easily. No wonder people are depressed and distressed and all kinds of unhappiness, since values like decency and honesty and integrity no longer seem to lead to the highest jobs. At least I am glad that many people have started to be become much more aware of things and are trying to take positive steps.


        9. It’s great that they are nice. Our local folks are nice too, and some may be wealthy, but if so, it is the more old-fashioned non-conspicuous way so we don’t know.


  2. Elizabeth, I had an experience similar to the one you mention in your opening paragraph. My youngest brother, C, was born when my father remarried and I was 24 years old. When C was about six years old, he asked me “Leslie, when you were little, were you in black and white?” because the only baby pictures he’d seen of me were black and white ones😂. It’s the first time I felt “old.”


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