My love affair with television

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Bob Wakeham

After watching the final episode a couple of weeks back of that rather extraordinary series, “Breaking Bad,” I found myself ruminating a bit — nothing Earth-shattering, mind you — about my relationship with the boob tube, one that started on Balbo Street in Gander and has included thousands upon thousands of hours plopped down in front of a TV set, and 25 years or so making a living in a television newsroom.

It was the Gillis family who had, as best I can recall, the first television set on our street, an ownership that immediately accorded them best-neighbour status (most of us youngsters had only heard from the adults about this amazing invention, and I think we even doubted its existence, just another piece of far-fetched information the grown-ups could use to scare the poop out of us, right up there with burning in hell for eternity for having dozed off during Sunday mass).

Even though the reception more often than not resembled a February blizzard, the signal coming, as it did, all the way from St. John’s (a world away, we believed), the transmitter in Grand Falls not having been established at the time, we didn’t give a hoot about the poor picture quality whenever we had a chance to crowd into the Gillis’ living room and wait patiently for the images to appear, even for just a few seconds.

And we’d cheer like loons when we could see a fuzzy outline of the Lone Ranger, atop Silver, and hear him bellowing, “Hi-yo Silver. Away!” The Masked Man and Tonto would ride into a dangerous canyon where we knew the bad guys were waiting, and then, just when our concern for the b’ys was causing wet palms, the picture would disappear, replaced by a whiteout, and we’d sit transfixed, waiting for the screen to clear so we could see whether our heroes had been plugged full of outlaw bullets or survived for another week of righteousness.

(Others could rave about the miraculous vision of the Lady of Fatima, but we thought the sight of the Lone Ranger on this rounded piece of glass was more of a miracle than Mother Mary’s appearance, although we kept this to ourselves, fearing fire and brimstone charges of blasphemy and engaging in black magic).

A set of our own

Miracles or no, when decent television reception in Gander became the exciting norm, we found ourselves the proud owners of a brand new set, and settled in each evening and watched with absolute giddiness as Lloyd Bridges descended to the depths of the ocean in “Sea Hunt,” or shivered in fear as Rod Serling took us on another frightening trip into “The Twilight Zone.”

Between then and now, television has provided a grand escape for me. Granted, there’s been a lot of crap on the tube (although “crap” is a very subjective term), but I’m not sure if I would have survived without being exposed to Pa, Little Joe, Hoss and Adam, Mary Tyler Moore and Mr. Grant, Bret Maverick or, in recent years, the type of push-the-envelope programming that has been the equal of any big-time movie, shows like “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “Six Feet Under,” “Homeland” and, arguably the best of them all, the aforementioned “Breaking Bad.”

To say nothing of the endless hockey, football and baseball games I’ve watched. Television, for sports nuts like me, has been like manna from heaven.

And then there was that lengthy career in television broadcasting, much of which is starting to fade into the furthest corners of my memory bank. Thankfully so, in some cases.

Self-absorbed

But, since the topic this Saturday is television, I can’t help but note that in one of the last ever editions of The Globe and Mail to be available in Newfoundland (we here in the wilderness have been written off by the Globe centralists), there was an article about the newly appointed vice-president of television programming for the CBC, Heather Conway (her résumé includes, disturbingly, a fair number of years as a government flack). And the headline on the story was — wait for it — “Shaping the Future of the CBC,” the umpteenth reinvention of the public broadcaster.

Now, I was a witness to several reinventions myself, and even had a peripheral participation in a couple. I can still recall the CBC brass bringing a hundred of us or so together every once in a while in Toronto for a “think-tank” on the future of Mother Corp. (The gathering of minds probably cost as much as a season of regional current affairs programming).

We, the chosen ones, would be put up in a fancy hotel, wined and dined, and had to do little more than offer a bit of insight, or what passed for insight, on where the CBC should be heading.

In retrospect, it seems like a colossal waste of money, although I admit I didn’t complain at the time and was content to spend a few days in Toronto, embrace the break from the daily news grind in St. John’s, take in a hockey game or baseball game, whatever was in season, and justify my presence by pontificating, whenever given the chance, about regions like Newfoundland being screwed.

But it was overblown, pretentious verbiage for the most part, and all for naught. The CBC is still navel-gazing, trying to figure itself out, and the regions are worse off, in terms of journalism, than they’ve ever been.

But, as I say, six or seven years in retirement have made me less and less interested in what the CBC sees in its mirror.

Been there. Had that fight.

Now, as I think on television, my priority is saying goodbye to Walt, Jessie, Skyler and Hank and the other unique characters on “Breaking Bad,” and awaiting the launch of the next mind-blowing series.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC, Sea Hunt, Globe and Mail

Geographic location: Gander, Balbo Street, Grand Falls Newfoundland and Labrador Toronto

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