My first experience with pay cable TV came when I moved to Santa Barbara with my mom and my brother in 1975. I think the name of the company was Channel 100, but I’m not certain about that. The name changed a few times between then and when I left for college in 1980. I don’t know how many times it was different companies or the same one trying new names on for size. I didn’t much care about that. The important thing was that it was commercial free and I got to hear all the dirty words.
At first, it seemed like the company would pick one movie and play it over and over for days on end. I don’t know how many times I saw American Graffiti that first summer in Santa Barbara before the school year began and I started making friends.
Thanks to pay cable, my exposure to R-rated movies first happened in my early teens. As far as I was concerned, an R-rated film was just a PG one with tits. I knew there was more to it than that. Profanity or violence above a certain level could affect the rating as well. However, those factors were matters of degree and difficult for my brain to parse. I sort of knew why Blazing Saddles garnered an R rating while Young Frankenstein did not, but could not explain it convincingly using data points. To be honest, I probably still can’t because the MPAA is so arbitrary. Nudity, on the other hand, was pretty much guaranteed to flip that switch.
I have no idea how any of that works now.
My parents, though not very permissive, did not have a problem with my watching R-rated movies at home. For one thing, I was a teenager already, albeit an immature one. Dad was no longer living with us so there was not a whole lot he could do even if he did object. My mother echoed the “it’s the violence, not the sex, that’s the problem” refrain of the 1970s progressive censor and knew that limiting me to PG films was not going to shield me from onscreen bloodshed.
There was such a thing as parental controls back then, but it was pretty low-tech compared to what we have today. It came in the form of a plug in the back of the cable box. It was a round piece of plastic with a number of metal prongs. If you pull the plug out, cable programming would not work. It didn’t matter what channel you were tuned to or if you were watching I Spit on Your Grave or Bambi. No plug meant you got a screen full of static.
Mom never exercised the plug-pulling option, but she joked about it quite often. “Pull the plug!” she would shout whenever there was something the slightest bit risque on television. The joke never got old for her.
Joke or not, my brother set about robbing the plug of its power to censor. It was probably more a love of tinkering than a need to rebel that inspired him. What he did was to stick the two ends of a section of wire in different holes of the plug’s socket until he found a combination that restored the picture. It was a simple yet clever workaround and he bragged about it immediately upon achieving success.
Mom didn’t appreciate his ingenuity. Instead, she got very upset and said he could have destroyed the cable box, electrocuted himself, burned the house down, and other worst-case scenarios popular among those who don’t know what they’re talking about. I think what really pissed her off was that my brother eliminated a part of her authority, even if she never intended to use it. Mom was pretty crazy back then (says the pot of the kettle).
I’m not as clever as my brother so the wire trick never occurred to me. I was just glad to be able to watch whatever I wanted.
You may be wondering if this unsupervised television viewing is responsible for the dysfunctional mess who stands before you today. The answer is not really, no. I was already pretty bent at that point so a lot of the sex and violence I watched was pretty underwhelming, enough so that sometimes I just wanted the people onscreen to die.
That’s where the plug came in.
I had once pulled the plug just to make sure it did what it was supposed to. It did, but it was the way it worked that got my attention. For the first several seconds, nothing happened. Then the picture switched from color to black and white. After that, static would creep into the audio and video. Finally, there would be nothing but snow.
Sometimes I would watch the whole process play out. Other times, I would wait until the very last minute then put the plug back in and save the TV people and their world from annihilation. I even enjoyed it more than my other hobby of reading the obituaries and crossing the people’s names out in the phone book. There I was just Death’s file clerk. Here I was Death himself.
I eventually grew bored with both the cable-box plug and the obituary game. In the long run, it was for the best.
“But when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Ricardo Montalban said that while praising Corinthian leather.