Cable TV took us from farm report to Johnny

Back when I was a child, television was a very rare thing. Not TVs themselves-I'm not that old, dammit-but the actual amount of programming being shown. In the pre-cable days, a city could only have as many TV stations as advertising could support. In Saskatoon, round about the cusp of 1970, that added up to two channels-and one of those was the CBC affiliate, which didn't actually rely on ad sales to survive. In theory, that was 48 hours a day of potential programming, but you're kidding yourself if you think there was any late-night action going on. Figure on at least eight hours of test patterns apiece, meaning a maximum of 32 TV hours per day of possible airtime.

Even with the most motivated and curious program directors at work, that's not much space to present a thorough survey of entertainment and current affairs, plus all the new network shows about doctors and cops. And, without casting too many aspersions, I suspect nobody was exiled to run a station in Saskatoon in the early 1970s if they had outstanding motivation or talent. That's why the shortlist of "People Whose Graves to Piss on If I'm Ever Passing Through That Town Again While Driving By in My Jaguar XJ6-C" really only includes Mrs. Hawkins (my Grade 6 teacher, who used to beat us) and whoever it was who programmed CFQC so insipidly. That may seem harsh, but that faceless somebody sure wasted a lot of my valuable media-exposure time, compared to what some other people I've met managed to get. Besides, I've grown so much as a person: when I left town, my list was a lot longer and I only used to dream about coming back in an MGB.

Larger cities these days can support more TV channels locally. But if you were among the majority who lived in rural North America in the pre-cable days-rather than in densely populated places like Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles (where they actually made the TV shows, not just a daily news show, the farm report, and an annual live auction)-you lived in a bubble of locally focused media.

At least back in those days, the main radio or TV stations and newspapers weren't all owned by the same corporation. There was a little competitive rivalry going on. And each city was a unique media ecosystem. Regina was only a couple of hundred kilometres from Saskatoon, yet I have no idea what they watched on TV there. It was out of range. You could pick up some AM radio stations sometimes, but with the right atmospheric conditions in the winter, you could also pick up New York. Didn't matter, though. Moose Jaw's CHAB was almost always the best choice. Either that or staring at the wheat until it blinked.

So, naturally, cable TV was a very disruptive technology when it arrived in 1977 or so. It brought nearly a dozen channels-overnight-to farming outposts across Western Canada, where they'd barely even heard the letters T and V pronounced together as a noun before. Forget fiddling with rabbit-ear reception; here was a direct feed from Williston, North Dakota, where two stations shared three American networks, the new car lot had four vehicles on display, and they'd preempt Saturday Night Live for coverage of high-school basketball games, no matter how much the college kids would complain, because Saskatoon wasn't their ad base. (Although it could have been, if they'd been smarter.) Suddenly you could get distant stations, but you were still dealing with left-over regionalism.

Cable did weird things with time, too, what with signals coming from different times zones and that daylight-savings stuff. Not only did we go from only hearing wispy rumours about Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live, we got to see them at 9:30 p.m. throughout half the year and at 10:30 during the other half. You could catch up on show biz or the comedy counterculture and still get to bed at a reasonable hour. (When I moved to Vancouver, I found it quite annoying that late-night programming was only being shown late at night.)

Even though these new stations had no Saskatoon content, at least we got to see a bit more programming. I expect the existing local channels had to tart themselves up a bit to retain market share, which was good. But the best offshoot from the cabling of Saskatchewan was that the cable company provided a volunteer-run community-access channel, complete with production facilities, relatively modern videocameras, and a live weekly show that people would call in to and try to swear on before the host hung up on them. It was the first time ordinary folk got to use sophisticated electronic gear (or cuss on TV), and it was interesting to watch the town become media-aware. The host's reflexes got pretty good too.

Anyway, over the 28 years since, the number of available channels has kept growing, thanks to digital cable and satellites. There is now media space available for every type of niche programming (a bit more space than there's quality, I'd wager), and anyone with a few thousand dollars can buy the equipment needed to shoot and edit their own show-in high-definition, if tds of hours a day of airtime capacity needing to be filled. But with the Internet around, do content producers need stations anymore? Isn't the audience moving off-air and on-line? Tune in next week, when we look at how quickly the broadcast cookie is crumbling.