TV before computers

I am watching television shows from the 1970s. Mary Tyler Moore, Rockford Files, Columbo, and now, Lou Grant.

I loved Lou Grant when it was broadcast between 1977 and 1982. The show won 13 Emmy Awards during its run. Now that I’m watching it as an older person, I can absolutely see why.

It’s so well written, the characters are distinct, the players are good actors, and the themes are relevant today thirty years later.

That it deals with newspaper publication is a bonus, as I used to be a newspaper publisher and grappled with all the issues presented on the show. News gathering is a wonderful thing- when done right.

I published a weekly paper in the internet era. Lou Grant gathered (fictional) news before computers. On the 70s shows, there are no computers! Mary Tyler Moore’s broadcast news desk has manila folders and a typewriter. Jim Rockford has the latest new machine all right: a telephone answering machine (for which he makes monthly payments). Even City Editor Lou Grant’s desk has only a phone and Rolodex. The reporters clack away on typewriters. They all run to the phone when on the beat, clamoring to be the first one to phone in the story to the waiting reporters who have their fingers poised over the keys.

Several Lou Grant episodes have talked about phone tricks. If the reporters were in a house or business, the first reporters arriving at the scene hide phones so they know which one to run to when the story breaks. Joe Rossi gave his aunt a pocket full of dimes when they were at the airport so she could call the news room and keep the line open for when he needed to retell the story over the phone wires to the typist.

On his first day on the job, Lou Grant passes by a VDT, video display terminal, and asks what it is. His boss explained, but I don’t get it. It displays text only, and it doesn’t save when turned off. Something of a primitive word processor connected to a bigger computer somewhere. It doesn’t generate text, only displays it. And it’s huge. To me it looks clunky and ancient (as I type this on my slim laptop with high resolution, graphics and mega-memory) but to 1978 eyes it looks newfangled.

You know, even though I LOVE computers, and I LOVE the internet, there is something appealing about a desk without the hulking, looming, slightly insidious monitor squatting like Jabba the Hut on my table. Everything looks simpler, streamlined, and cleaner. Was that era really simpler? Maybe, maybe not. Has the internet been a boon to this generation? Maybe, maybe not.

Sue Grafton is the author of the Alphabet detective series, you know, “A is for Alibi”, etc. She said in an interview once that she deliberately set the novels in an era prior to the computer era (70’s and early 80s) because she wanted her detective to solve mysteries on the beat like the old gumshoes, with wit and intelligence and cunning. I like that.

You see the tv ad of Paul Revere playing charades by firelight with friends, and he sees the light come on in the old North Church, and he takes a cell phone out of his pocket to say “The British are coming”. He pops it back into his pocket and continues with the game. There’s something compelling and daring about being in the world doing exploits, riding a foamy horse through the darkling night, shouting THE BRITISH ARE COMING” that texting on a cell phone just doesn’t have. 

Aw, snap, I’ve turned into an old lady, musing about “the way it was.”

I can have it both ways, though. I can listen live stream to a sermon in CA, watch a Syrian conflict unfold as it happens, see the dust still flying during an earthquake in New Zealand, attend Khan Academy to learn physics, and still have my old fictional friends Mary, Lou, Columbo and Rockford running around gathering news and solving crimes the old fashioned way. And that seems pretty good to me.


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