Guess what? Television used to be free. They’d pump it out over the airwaves so you could watch Jackie Gleason while you eat and you wouldn’t get a monthly bill plus a service fee, plus a handling fee, plus a remote control rental fee. The only thing you’d ever have to pay for was a television repairman because if your tv broke you’d get it fixed (by a guy with the ultimate set of tools if we’re to believe the most famous tv repairman of all time, Spicoli’s dad in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Television sets were expensive but also they used to also weigh one hundred pounds each. They called them “sets” because you would set them down and never pick them back up due to extreme density. It made more sense to have a stranger come over to your house, show off some butt-crack, and repair your bohemouth living room fixture so you could watch those eight channels. Paula Cole wanted to know where all the cowboys have gone, I want to know what happened to all the t.v. repairman.
I love television and I don’t begrudge the modern viewership for paying any kind of money each month to watch all the shows they want. It is most definitely worth it, you won’t get any argument from me otherwise. That said, there is an alternative. Free television still exists. It is floating around, bouncing off satellites and filling the air constantly throughout the day (which may explain why I can’t go ten minutes without talking about Family Ties or Punky Brewster—its out there flying around my head, it’s not my fault!) All you need to harness this free entertainment is an HD antenna to pick up the digital signal. The antennas vary in price but are generally inexpensive and only a one-time fee. And believe me, it is worth it because these tv channels and sub-channels are as entertaining as anything else out there. You get all the standard options CBS, NBC, FOX, etc. but depending on where you live, different channels are available. Antenna television is the wild-wild west of programming. It’s like nobody is watching what is happening. Most likely, because nobody is actually watching what is happening. Here is a look at some of my favorite local antenna channels:
2-2 CBSNY+ aka Countdown to Decades: During their commercial breaks this channel will advertise a “series binge.” Then for the next 50 hours it will show every episode of Love American Style or The Twilight Zone or Dark Shadows in a row. One time they aired every episode of something called The Mothers-In-Law starring Kaye Ballard and Eve Arden, the principal from Grease. The show was hilarious but I had never heard of it before and I realized maybe not everything is being stored on the internet, which will make you question everything you think you know. I watched this channel regularly for about four months and kept thinking “what a weird name for a channel, The Countdown to Decades, what does that mean?” Then all of a sudden last week there was a commercial for the first time saying a new network called Decades is launching at the end of May. So this whole time was the countdown to Decades. Mystery solved. Most of the time when people think of “decades” they are neat units of time: 1960s, ’70s, ’80s. I’m hoping Decades gets down and dirty and chops it up like 1984-1993. Is that not as valid a decade as any? It is. It is.
4-2 Cozi: Cozi is my sweet spot because it has the 11:00 p.m. showing of Miami Vice that my entire week of television watching is built around. Miami Vice is the perfect pre-bed show because they’re all insane so you don’t really need to pay attention to the plot because it is a fever dream set to VH1 Classic. Then at least once an episode a familiar face will pop up because they were the OGs of stunt casting, forget Will & Grace. I’ll be laying in bed half-asleep with the Vice on and then be like “oh hey, is that Frank Zappa. Or Bill Russell. Or G. Gordon Liddy?” “Oh yes, it is.” G. Gordon Liddy almost destroyed this nation with his political hijinx, went to jail for it, got out, and the Miami Vice producers were like “let’s give him a role as a Vietnam Vet.” And then Cozi will throw in some perfect lead-in shows because the only thing better than a Miami Vice Vietnam plot is a Magnum P.I. Vietnam origin episode so you can see how Magnum met Rick and TC. But then also, they’ll vary it with some Murder, She Wrote or Knight Rider. And after Labor Day, Quantum Leap is coming and the episode of that when Sam ends up in the body of a chimp should be playing in the Smithsonian on repeat 24/7 as it is a national treasure.
5-2 Movies!: The best part of antenna television is the names of the channels. Like the Countdown to Decades mystery that took me a winter to solve. We have a movie channel, too. It is called Movies!. That is the word “movies” with an exclamation mark afterwards. Even though it has commercials, it is the best movie channel. Movies! plays films where the only people who remember them were of the movie-going age at the time that specific movie came out. They never cycled down to the next generation. Everybody knows Rocky all these years later but the only people who remember Rhinestone with Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton were teenagers in 1984. It’s a movie where Sly plays a wannabe country singer and belts out a number called Drinkenstein, seriously go watch it. Then, Movies! will throw in some Peggy Sue Got Married which is as good of a “going to the ‘50s from the ‘80s” movie as Back to the Future in my opinion. Or Punchline will come on and you can see Sally Field play Tom Hanks’s girlfriend six years before she played his mom in Forrest Gump, so gross.
7-2 Live Well: This is a lifestyle network that has some fantastic original programming. Joey Fatone has a cooking show that is called My Family Recipe Rocks where he goes to people’s houses and has them cook their favorite foods. One time he went to the Star Wars museum, Rancho Obi Wan and they made something called “Admiral Ackbars”—tell me you wouldn’t watch that. Then they have a home renovation show called Knock it Off! where you send in what you want a room in your house to look like and then Monica Mangin and Jess Jackson make it happen for approximately $45.00. There’s always a point in every episode when they build a coffee table from some spare twigs, a trashcan lid, and then a varnish and it looks spectacular. Plus, they let the homeowners help them which means my room would be redecorated in blood from when I got to use the band saw.
7-3 Laff: I think this is a newer channel because I pay pretty close attention to the antenna dial and this popped up recently. I’ve never seen anything but The Drew Carey Show on Laff but allegedly they have daytime episodes of Empty Nest and Grace Under Fire which means I have to quit my job so I can watch Richard Mulligan be one of the greatest tv doctors ever. The only reason I know what botulism is, has to do with an Empty Nest episode when a kid ate food out of the garbage can. I’m probably only alive today because of Dr. Harry Weston.
9-1 WWOR My 9: This is a standard channel that doesn’t have any programming aside of Charlie Sheen’s Anger Management. When that show first came out I heard they ordered 100 episodes off the bat. That was confusing to me because I’d had never seen an episode anywhere. I’ve never even heard of one single person talking about it, even to complain. Then I found My 9 and I think they show all 100 episodes start-to-finish at least once per day. Sometimes Martin Sheen is on as Charlie’s dad and sometimes Brian Austin Green is on as Charlie’s friend and sometimes I think it would be great if I could make a show that absolutely nobody was paying attention to. I’d call it Trial Separation and William Fichtner would play a dad who married his ex-wife’s new husband’s ex-wife and they all have to live in the same building together by court order.
11-2 Antenna: For real my favorite channel of them all. It’s a called Antenna and it’s on an antenna. This is re-run heaven. I’m watching One Day at a Time as I write this and Schneider is hilarious. Here is why this is my dream network: Small Wonder,Too Close For Comfort, Doogie Howser MD, The Monkees, Newhart, Three’s Company plus The Ropers and Three’s a Crowd. At 3 a.m., they show old Jack Benny episodes. There is nothing that beats this lineup. They even have Mr. Belvedere, which has a top-5 all-time theme song. I could probably survive off just Antenna and bowls of cereal for like 40-50 years if the world ended and I could only bring two things into my bunker with the only other survivor, Jami Gertz.
11-3 ThisTV: There is a mastermind somewhere out there not making nearly enough money for naming a channel “This TV.” “What are you watching?” “Oh, just This.” “This what?” “This TV.” This TV is a movie channel that is owned by WPIX so it’s basically a movie channel that plays the movies that WPIX would play on a Sunday at one in the afternoon thirty years ago but it does it all day and all night. Any channel that you can turn on at midnight and Toy Soldiers will be playing is a real slice of heaven. Everyone always thinks of Jerry Orbach as Jake Houseman in Dirty Dancing, which is good and perfect but when a man is wrong he says he’s wrong and Jerry Orbach is so badass in Toy Soldiers as the head of the New Jersey mob. His movie son, Will Wheaton has the second best dangling earring of all time, after Jason Patric’s in The Lost Boys. This, the channel, is a fine way to spend a day if you want to see Fatal Beauty or Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man or Convoy like it was your dad refusing to give up the tv on his day off in ’89.
13-2 PBS K!ds: A channel for kids that utilizes an exclamation mark to spell the word “kids.” It’s like they told these channel runners that they can only use nouns and punctuation to name their channels otherwise Ted Turner and James Dolan take over and make their stations ESPN 47 and some weird VH1 for middle-age men that only shows videos of white guys playing blues music. This station has nearly non-stop Thomas the Tank Engine episodes which I have mixed feelings about because the new ones don’t have Mr. Conductor (Ringo or George Carlin) or Schemer or that jukebox world and those were all the best parts.
24-1 WASA-HD aka Estrella TV: Sometimes there is a clown playing roulette with a wheel full of eggs that the contestants smash on each others heads or eat and then pound mugs full of beer. TV en espanol is unbeatable.
25-2 NYGOV: Broadcasts local government hearings. I sit and watch this channel and feel like “is anybody else onto this?” like I found a secret world of policymakers deciding things that affect our lives that nobody has any clue about and it all must be some huge Pelican Brief conspiracy. When I was younger, my cousin wasn’t allowed to watch the weather channel because he would get freaked out when they mentioned a storm coming. I spend fifteen minutes watching council meetings and I’m out on the streets screaming in my underwear about how they’re cutting all the budgets and closing down our city’s institutions forever and anarchy, sweet anarchy is about to run through the gutters like it’s an infomercial from The Joker and not the board of education’s weekly sit-down.
31-5 QVC: Gotta sell to everyone, doesn’t matter if they got cable or not. I bought a 24K Hideo Nomo card once, it cost $40, I borrowed it from my parents and had to pay them back. That was supposed to triple in value, I could’ve been living off that money down in Miami going to Club Space in the afternoon and sleeping all morning. QVC, damn they got me. Props.
31-6 HSN: I will always know I am doing alright when there’s an option to buy from QVC and Home Shopping Network. Capitalism survives while both of these channels rock on the antenna.
41-3 Bounce: Bounce plays The Bernie Mac Show, A Different World, and Roc. When I was a kid, my brother and I wrote letters to our favorite tv shows. He picked Saved By The Bell—which granted is a solid choice, the episode when Kelly breaks up with Zack to How Am I Supposed to Live Without You makes me weep on the spot. But I wrote a letter to A Different World. Jaleesa was my favorite because every episode she always made the most valid points. Roc did an entire season of live episodes just because the cast was so talented and was like, “yeah sure why not, let’s try it” and nobody ever talks about that. It makes me mad because Charles S. Dutton has never once survived in any movie he’s ever been in and I get so excited when I see him, I scream ROC! like that is who Jay-Z has been shouting out all these years but then I get sad because I know he’s not making it past Act III.
41-4 GRIT Grit is a channel that only plays Westerns and George Foreman commercials so this actually may be where all the cowboys have gone. Now those tv repairman, that’s another story … My Twitter friend Zack Stentz says they should just call this channel DAD but really that could apply to every and all channels I mentioned above.
There also about thirty other foreign language channels broadcast in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and more. Sometimes I put them on and convince myself that I could learn each one of these languages by watching enough television like Antonio Banderas in The 13th Warrior when he’s traveling in the dessert with this group of guys and by the time they get where they need to go, he’s taught himself their language just by eavesdropping.
The patron saint of antenna television is a complex figure who I have come to know very well on a nightly basis. His commercials air on almost all of the networks above. It is through the lens of this marketing onslaught that the target demographic of antenna TV becomes clear. He is an older man—a former cowboy to be exact but also, he uses catheters. His voice is grizzled, he’s been cowboying for 25 years, suffered fourteen broken bones, had two concussions and a punctured lung. He knows pain and doesn’t want any more of it, especially when he “caths.” He wears a cowboy hat, a flannel shirt, and a vest and he wants you to try a free catheter sample. He says he’s just like me, like you, like us, wondering if we should call.
The first time I saw this ad, I thought “I didn’t know catheters were something that happened outside of hospitals.” The next five times I saw this ad, I thought “I didn’t know that ‘cath’ was a verb.” The next thirty times I saw this ad, I thought “I need to know everything about this mystical cathing cowboy.” But also what makes these new catheters less painful. I mean, they claim that they are “nearly painless,” but is that even a positive? It still sounds like there is pain. It reminds me the cigarette ads from back in the day that advertised “less tar!” There’s still tar in there though, isn’t there? If they’re running these ads forty times a night, somebody must be calling for these catheters, right? I’m a youngish person without any medical conditions and I’m about to call the number to check out the new caths. Does that make this the most successful marketing plan of all time!?!
He’s a real-life actual cowboy, a character straight from a movie you’d see on the Grit network. He’s a relic from another time—yes, there are some miles on him. The term “rode hard and put away wet” applies. But he still gets the job done and in the most entertaining way possible. Catheter Cowboy is antenna television. He’s not the future. He’s mostly the past. But he’s here right now so let’s enjoy him.