So, I’ve spent three weeks of a Star Trek blogging project talking about TV stations in the ’80s, one being the weird UHF station that did whatever it wanted at times, another being the respectable rural station that did loopy things in spite of themselves, and the third being the good child that makes all the right choices and succeeds in ways that no small-market station ever should (Channel 3 is far better run than the stations here in Vegas have ever been, despite being in a larger market). And I also discussed the two outlier stations that I barely watched (Channels 8 and 31). However, there’s still the matter of two stations that I watched less, but that still made an impression.
First is WETK, Channel 33, the PBS station serving Vermont. Channel 33 predates PBS, which is why it was referred alternatively as Vermont Educational Television or Vermont ETV until well after I had moved away-those names refer to the PBS predecessor, NET (National Educational Television). One point of order is the channel number for WETK. While I certainly watched it plenty enough on Channel 33, the weather and over-the-air TV being what it was, this wasn’t always the case, and station management certainly understood this, because the station had tons of repeaters (the ’80s-era station ID screen, which I can’t find, because Vermont, was one-thirds a list of the IDs of repeaters). So, more often than not, we’d get the station on Channels 20 or 44 (the latter is now Vermont’s Fox affiliate, which is a story for another time). Besides that, the teachers at East Montpelier Elementary would happily appropriate PBS programs that fit into their lesson plans on occasion.
Generally speaking, it was your standard PBS affiliate. Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Nova, Masterpiece Theatre…..you get the idea. That is, until the summer, for ten days. Since PBS is the gimpy, pathetic state-backed TV network, the affiliates have to have pledge drives and generally beg for donations. WETK’s solution was not only good, but it made for ten days of awesome TV: they held an auction of donated items. Furniture, art prints, nice dinners, services….just tons of stuff were donated by viewers and strewn across a fairly spacious studio at the station (which was and still is in Colchester, a suburb of Burlington), hosted by Jack Barry (a legendary broadcaster in the state), with appearances by all sorts of well-known Vermonters getting roped in as volunteers. The entire affair (lasting ten hours each of those ten days) was set up like a telethon (the obvious model being the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s telethons hosted by Jerry Lewis, which were a mainstay on Channel 22), with bidding done by phone. The entire thing was a genius idea (and obviously completely undoable in the age of eBay), and I’ve never heard of such a thing being repeated. (The model is actually rather close to Patreon, come to think of it.)
Perhaps most marginal of the stations I could watch in the ’80s was CBMT, Montreal’s CBC station. Marginal, primarily because it was Canadian, and very infrequently viewable. And a lot of those times it could be seen, it was in French (and therefore either bad memories on my part or the result of some strangeness with CBMT’s French sister station, CBFT, coming through over Channel 6 via a repeater). There’s really not much to tell beyond that-the only shows I can recall watching on the station(s) were some Disney shorts in French (including, quite fittingly, the Goofy short “Hockey Homicide”), a few snippets of some random shows, and a decent amount of the CBC’s iconic Hockey Night in Canada. And, later in the ’80s on Saturday afternoons, Star Trek. And always on cable.
As stated in earlier weeks, I did not have cable in the ’80s. This is because competing cable companies in Barre and Montpelier (one being Adelphia) decided to spend the decade in a pissing contest over East Montpelier, which is even more hilarious if you’ve actually lived in Vermont enough to know that it’s a very small town. So, until the fall of 1990, cable was something I experienced during visits to certain relatives’ houses, and almost exclusively on weekends (which means that seeing syndicated cartoons of the era otherwise unavailable to me like She-Ra and Filmation’s Ghostbusters wasn’t happening. As a result, other than stumbling across the rare item of interest like the aforementioned CBC reruns of Star Trek (which were edited entirely differently from the reruns on Channel 22-most acts ended with a freeze frame on CBC 6) and watching horrible movies (Howard the Duck being the obvious poster child), it was down to two channels: USA and Nickelodeon.
Many cable networks have completely warped since the ’80s (MTV, A&E, The Learning Channel, AMC….), but none quite as subtly as USA. While USA is now known for original dramatic shows and WWE Raw, USA was home to music video programs, sports (the network was originally called the Madison Square Garden Network, in fact), various off-network dramas, WWF wrestling (now known as the aforementioned WWE), cult/B movies (the most colorful package being Kung Fu Theatre, which showed the type of badly-dubbed Asian martial arts films that inspired Quentin Tarantino), game show reruns, and a ton of cartoons.
Most of the cartoons were a part of the USA Cartoon Express. The cartoons were almost entirely from Hanna-Barbera until the end of the ’80s, when the block was massively reformatted (with all-new bumpers featuring a dopey cartoon polar bear serving as the conductor) and started featuring reruns from ’80s syndicated cartoons (and heavily edited for time in the sloppiest fashion possible). This was kind of OK, but really…..it was Hanna-Barbera. And for every good show (the majority from the earliest years of the studio, or on TV elsewhere), there was a ton of really bad ones. Thankfully, USA picked up He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Channel 22, for whatever reason, dumped the show promptly after the 1985-86 season (which was also when the series went into reruns). So, for an hour at least, He-Man was back, and that was good. History shows that She-Ra aired on USA, as well (and, as with He-Man, outside of the Cartoon Express), but I never saw it. Part of it is probably timing, but there’s likely a more obvious reason: I was watching Nickelodeon.
Nickelodeon, while officially the same network, was completely different in the ’80s. The main reason: they produced practically nothing themselves. And with USA grabbing rights to everything Hanna-Barbera had to offer, this meant that Nickelodeon had to look far and wide, including internationally, for shows. Lassie, Mister Ed, and Dennis the Menace were black-and-white reruns that, if not for their kid-friendly content, would have aired on Nick at Nite (then, as now, a retirement home for sitcoms that had fallen out of syndication, though the shows were almost entirely bland-and-white in the ’80s). Dangermouse, Count Duckula, and The Tomorrow People were imported from the UK. Mysterious Cities of Gold was a French-Japanese co-production, and Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea dropped the Japanese participation, but gained an even more unique art style and a theme song from the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo. Filmation’s animated version of Star Trek was of course from America, and both wonderfully different and astonishingly the same as its live action predecessor. Pinwheel, Nickelodeon’s lynchpin morning program, was mostly a Sesame Street-styled show, but featured shorts acquired from all over Europe (many of which had been dubbed into English by the BBC for The Magic Roundabout). However, the most popular show was from Canada, and, as the title made instantly clear, You Can’t Do That on Television.
Without giving much away immediately, You Can’t Do That on Television, was an open statement of rebellion against normal kids’ shows. And children of my generation ate it up. Amazingly, even the starkly traditional and retro Mr. Wizard’s World (a Canadian-produced revival of Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired from 1951-1965 on NBC) fit in with the atmosphere of rebellion against Saturday morning TV. With the introduction of Double Dare in 1986, the network ended the ’80s ready to conquer the (TV) world, and I would be there to see it.
Next week, we’ll still be in the ’80s, but this time we’ll be looking at a specific night of the week on CBS, and some shows that were both iconic, and in one case, incredibly problematic when compared to Star Trek.