TELEVISION IN THIS area before 1953 didn't give you a whole lot to look at.
Reception was – to put it mildly – horrible. If you owned a set (and few people did), you could sit and watch a few hours a day of hazy black-and-white shows constantly fading in and out, with sound to match.
Of course even to get that much you needed a humongous antenna on your roof. The antenna was a desperate attempt to pull in a signal from Philadelphia and New York stations, which were the closest ones to Wyoming Valley, and not easy to pick up because our mountains tended to block them.
Still, being invited to someone's house to watch TV was a treat. You could actually see two guys slugging one another at 10 p.m. on Friday, courtesy of Gillette razors. On another night you might laugh along with The Goldbergs or wonder if the commies would ever catch on to counterspy Richard Carlson on I Led Three Lives.
A lot of bars had cable and could pick up the out-of-town stations nicely. So did some private homes. But there was a factor holding back TV progress: the high cost of a set. In an era when the average working person's salary was but a fraction of today's, a 21-inch, top-of-the-line console (the 50-incher of its day) could easily cost a couple of months' pay, pretty well shooting up a family's entertainment budget.
On New Year's Day, 1953, 60 years ago this past week, everything changed. Local TV fans finally stopped living on the edge when the area got its very own TV station. That day WBRE-TV, Channel 28, went on the air with a spectacular menu of NBC programming that included the Rose Bowl game, the first major college gridiron game that most local sports fans had ever seen.
WBRE opened the floodgates. Within 18 months, Northeastern Pennsylvania had two ABC stations (WILK-34 and WARM-16), a CBS station (WGBI-22) and an independent station that showed a lot of movies (Channel 73). TV Guide enjoyed more reverence than The Catholic Light.
Now you didn't have to run down to the neighborhood tavern to see Gorgeous George body slam a bad guy, or Ed Sullivan grimace his way through Toast of the Town.
Social observers were already pointing to changes in everyday life. Living rooms were rearranged from the circular conversation-style to theater-type seating. And it wasn't long before some critics were decrying the baleful influence of the tube on impressionable young minds.
Hollywood, terrified that the movie houses would fall into ruin, quickly responded with wide-screen methods called Cinerama, Cinemascope, VistaVision and Todd-AO. My favorite movie teaser, though, was 3-D. You had to wear those darn plastic glasses, but you got the bejabbers deliciously scared out of you when a desperado threw a knife into the camera.
As more stations were established across America, programming quality improved to the point that some now call the 1950s a golden age with the dramatic anthology Studio One and newsman Edward R. Murrow's probing See it Now. But there was still a layer of dreck (anyone remember the maudlin Queen for a Day?), and soon the era of the rigged big-money quiz show was upon us.
So this week let's salute the visionaries who brought local stations and cable access and opened up more of the world for us Northeastern Pennsylvanians.
Spoiler alert: The commies never caught on to Richard Carlson.
On New Year's Day, 1953, 60 years ago this past week,
everything changed. Local TV fans finally stopped living on the edge when the area got its very own TV station.
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader columnist. Reach him at [email protected].