Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Things I Miss: UHF

Not the movie. I own that. No, I miss UHF TV stations. They're still around, of course, but they're not the same as they were when I was a kid. Back before UPN and the WB and the CW (which is, like, the WB and UPN combined like Voltron, right?) there were only three networks (four, counting PBS)...but something like nine channels in any given area as you flipped through the VHF and UHF dials. Which meant that you had, at any given time, four or five channels that weren't network affiliates to anyone.

Pretty much all those networks showed the same thing: Re-runs of old television shows and cheap movies well past their theatrical prime. This was back before first-run syndicated shows like "Star Trek: The Next Generation", when the shows you were more likely to see on a UHF station were things like "Perry Mason", "F Troop", and...well, okay, "Voltron". Because old Japanese cartoons were cheap, too. The days were filled with a surprisingly random selection of TV shows, the evenings were reserved for movies that, in a pre-video era, you probably hadn't seen and wouldn't mind watching. It was sort of like being in a room with someone else's streaming Netflix subscription.

Which was fun in and of itself (in a way that has obviously been far surpassed by today's five hundred channels of cable, DVDs of virtually every single TV series and most movies, and streaming online videos)...but the best part was the way that these old UHF stations distinguished themselves from their competitors. They didn't have original programming, they didn't have original movies, all they had was a library of old stuff that was virtually indistinguishable from everyone else's...and a group of underpaid, bored people with video cameras.

This was a recipe for awesome.

The advertisements were usually great; one of our local stations, Channel 41 (which only came in grainy, staticky, and vertical-hold challenged) called themselves "TV Heaven" and suggested that they were where good television shows went when they died. Another had ads for "Star Trek" re-runs where they advertised the Amazing "Bones" McCoy! "He's an escalator!" "I'm a doctor, not an escalator!" "He's a diplomat!" "I'm a doctor, not a diplomat!" "And he can even shuttle traffic to the moon!" "What am I, a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor!" What they lacked in steak, they made up in sizzle. And it was fun.

And when it came to movies...some people claim that comics are the truly American art form, but I think that horror hosts are almost more American than comic books. Whether Vampira, Svengoolie, Ghoulardi or Elvira, they treated classic horror movies with the mix of love and amusement they deserved. And I, of course, feel privileged as hell to have been a viewer of the ultimate evolution of the horror host phenomenon, the one-season wonder that made it good on a national scale, "Mystery Science Theater 3000". (Lucky me, right?)

It's cheesy, it's silly, and arguably everything about these networks is better now...but part of me feels like TV stations used to have more personality when that's all they had to work with. I liked these old UHF stations that ran things on the cheap, and part of me still misses them.


Jeff McGinley said...

We had a TV heaven in college, showed old Soupy Sales reruns (earning its name) Sure everything is available on DVD now, but you have to look for it. That was the best thing about the pile of old shows on UHF, stumbling upon something fun you didn't know about. It's like the difference between finding the excact good book you want on-line vs wandering through a used book store and finding great books you didn't know existed.

El A said...

God knows if I was 15 or so years younger there's no way in heck that I would have been exposed to such classic TV as "F Troop". Especially now since TV Land has moved themselves firmly into in 1990's.

I also consider myself to be among the lucky, happy, laughing teenagers (at the time) of the Twin Cities who got to see the initial season of MST3K on 23. And it always hurt a little, whenever the creators answered the question of "When will the first season episodes be put on DVD?" they always answered with a variation on, "Oh no, those were terrible, you don't want to see those... Never ever ever" etc. I remember them fondly and would jump at the chance to watch them again.

LurkerWithout said...

The only thing I miss from before I got DirectTV and switched over from an converter antena is THIS, a basically UHF old movie channel. They had some good stuff. Some terrible and cheesy stuff as well, but a lot of good obscure westerns and noir as well...