The persistence of memory: New York television circa 1980

October 28, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 28, 2015

The other day, I was at a restaurant in North Carolina and I asked for the channel to be switched to one of the major broadcast networks — ABC, Fox, something like that.

When the bartender asked me what channel that was, I grimaced. Then I awkwardly explained that, although I’ve lived in North Carolina for nearly a dozen years, I’ve never really had a working television in any of my homes during that time, so I hadn’t the foggiest idea what the channel number was.

I grew up outside of New York City, in an area where the broadcast media was dominated by New York TV and radio. This was true, to a lesser extent, for daily newspapers — The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and their trashier tabloid competitors, the New York Daily News and the New York Post, were sold alongside the local paper in pharmacies and grocery stores and everywhere else I can remember papers being sold.

Many, many years later, I can effortlessly recall the TV channels of my childhood. CBS was on channel 2, NBC on channel 4, Fox (after it launched in 1986) on channel 5 and ABC on channel 7. Channel 9 featured an independent station called WWOR, which I remember carrying New York Mets baseball games and lots of reruns. Reruns of Star Trek and other programs were also a major part of the programming on a second independent station, WPIX, which was on channel 11. Again like its counterpart, PIX (as we sometimes called it, pronouncing each letter: pee-eye-ex) also featured sports broadcasts: For years, it was the local television home of New York Yankees baseball games.

On what back then passed for the far end of the dial, channel 13 carried WNET was the public television purveyor of PBS and its offerings — Sesame StreetMasterpiece Theater and the like. This station provided my introduction to pledge drives, which I dimly recall involved people awkwardly sitting in television studios trying to avoid sounding desperate.

I’ll muse a bit more about the area’s radio scene, and the weird persistence of memory, in a subsequent post.

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