How Weird Late-Night Cable TV Help Shape This Gen Xer’s Personality
If you don't recognize the picture above, it's a cable box from the mid-1980s. Technically it's a Jerrold JSX-3 CATV Cable Converter Switch Box. But to me, it was one of the most important devices in history. it was the first cable box I remember.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the 1980s in western Nebraska, AKA The Middle of, the Middle of Nowhere. Sure, lucky because of the clean air and wide open spaces. More importantly, because we were so far away from good TV signals, we'd had cable TV since the 70s.
Cable TV was developed in the middle of the 20th century to bring TV signals to places that couldn't get them over the air through an antenna. In my town, we could kind of get a Nebraska PBS signal, and that was about it.
For a while, cable TV was just the networks, like NBC, CBS, ABC, public television (gotta have Sesame Street), and maybe something like HBO.
But, into the 1980s things changed. The Weather Channel, CNN, ESPN, USA, MTV, A&E. Can you believe it? A whole channel just for the weather! One for sports!
If you weren't there when cable exploded, think about what it was like on the early internet in the late 1990s. It was a huge change in the way people got information.
As a card-carrying precocious Gen X adolescent, I loved, loved, LOVED cable TV. And that Jerrold JSX-3 CATV Cable Converter Switch Box was my first portal to adventure...and thousands of hours of Beastmaster.
That magic box connected 10-year-old me to MTV. That's 1986 MTV when it meant something. We had two radio stations in my area and three of them played county music.
But, now I had access to all the music they had in Denver and LA. From Huey Lewis to Ozzy to Run DMC. Plus Martha Quin and that guy with the hair.
It wasn't just the music. MTV and Nickelodeon introduced me to The Monkees, Monty Python, soooooo many stand-up comics, Dragnet, The State, John Stewart, and Randy of the Redwoods.
A love of history and government were sparked by flipping through the channels and finding documentaries from A&E and Discovery, and live coverage of the government from C-Span.
I learned about my parents' childhoods from Nick at Nite. Rob Petrey, Maynard G. Krebs, and Joe Friday taught me about the 1960s. The Brady Bunch handled the '70s. Even Lucy was around for lessons on the '50s.
But, the cable TV discovery that has shaped my personality more than anything was on the USA Network on Friday and Saturday nights; Night Flight.
Like the early days of the internet, Night Flight was a free-for-all. One that kept you company through the late night hours.
Night Flight was music videos, weird movies, video art projects, stand-up and sketch comedy, documentaries, and anything weird or alternative. It was cult pop-culture fed straight into my brain.
It's where I first saw Refer Madness and Andy Warhol's weird movies. It's where I met John Waters and Devine. It's what introduced me to Atomic TV's mashups of various Cold War-era footage and propaganda.
And the music videos were amazing. From avant-garde musicians to European new-wave groups, reggae, the heavy metal MTV was scared of, alternative bands, and niche novelty songs.
It aired on USA through the end of the decade and faded away through the 1990s as the cable industry matured out of its Wild West days.
It was a show that could only exist when the medium was new and nobody had figured out how to really use it.
In the 2020s, YouTube and TikTok bring the world to my kids. In the 1980s that little box brought it to me.
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Gallery Credit: RESULTS-TOWNSQUARE MEDIA SIOUX FALLS