Televisions today are flat panels either mounted on a wall or sitting atop a stand. Owners want it to be large, visible, and yet at the same time they want it to take up as little space as possible. In my younger years TV’s were much smaller in screen size and yet typically much larger and bulkier than the TV’s made today with a bigger footprint. This is because the primary television most people used was housed inside of a console. As a kid almost everyone I knew still had one of these and in many cases it was parked in the living room proudly displayed as a piece of furniture.
We used a console as our primary TV in the living room as a kid complete with a rabbit ears antenna. Yes that’s right; I didn’t have cable TV. In fact I was forced to watch over the air broadcasts until the summer of 1998 when we finally upgraded to satellite TV. But as a child I can clearly remember examining every facet of our old console TV in the living room and distinctly remember how different the technology and the experience was back then. Knobs on the front, a curved screen, decorative handles affixed to the wooden casing. Some TV’s even had doors on them to hide the screen when not in use.
The biggest change between a TV today and the console sets of yesteryear was turning the unit itself on. Ours did not have a remote control. In order to power the unit on you had to pull the “power knob” out. The knob also doubled as the volume control. Rotating it to the right increased the volume, rotating it left lowered the volume, pulling the knob outwards turned the unit on, and pushing it back in powered it off. Once the unit was on you didn’t begin watching however. It had to warm up first. Pulling out the knob was accompanied by an almost “thump” like noise as electricity surged into the tube and the inside of the console would begin to make some crackling sounds. Eventually you could begin to hear some faint audio but the picture remained blank. As the TV continued to warm up the audio would increase in volume and the screen would begin to glow finally showing the broadcast in a very dim light that would rapidly brighten until the unit was fully powered up.
Turning the TV off was much faster but offered interesting quirks as well. Pushing the power knob in would cause the screen to flash and go dark as the picture would shrink into a small dot in the center of the screen. I remember that if you watched this dot closely you could actually still see the broadcast playing out until the dot would slowly fade away. The sound of crackling inside of the cabinet would repeat itself here as well.
As a kid I was fascinated by what was going on inside of the cabinet itself. The rear of the TV was a lighter colored thin wood with vent holes drilled into it allowing one to peer inside of the unit just enough to see some glowing parts. Up close you could hear a constant hum as current ran through the various wires, capacitors, resistors, tubes, and whatever else was contained inside of that magical box. Housed in the unit was the speaker that provided the accompanying audio and it was far from Dolby. It did however produce a quaint somewhat distorted but warm feeling analog sound that you can only produce with older equipment and that you can only understand if you experience it. Heat radiated out of the back of the set and was trapped between the console and the wall so the air back there always felt inviting when you would crawl behind the unit on a Saturday night in the winter time when the house had a bit of a chill. There was also a distinctive smell that emanated from the unit and hung behind the console and the wall that I can only describe as “warm electronics” or “ozone”. There were some hazards to crawling around back there. Our house was older and didn’t feature grounded outlets or really even an adequate quantity of total outlets. As a result the back of the TV was home to not only the power cords from the electronics connected to it, but lamps, stereos, and anything else that needed 3 extension cords run across the baseboard to reach the closest available wall jack. The back of our TV looked something like this:
Need to connect something to your TV? Inputs were available on the back of the unit. Boy did we have choices! Two screws for VHF broadcasts and two screws for UHF broadcasts! Coaxial? A/V inputs? They didn’t exist here. If you wanted to connect a cable box, VCR, NES or anything else to the TV you had to get a 75 OHM to 300 OHM transformer and screw it into place. What’s that? It’s a little coaxial input with pigtails on the other end. Need to connect something with A/V outputs? Then you had better invest in an RF Modulator! Oh, and don’t forget to tune into channel 3. If you had a few different devices you wanted to connect simultaneously you could daisy chain these things together or do it the old fashioned way and climb back there to change the inputs each time.
Today the term “set top box” is just a legacy but in those days it was a literal term. Since the TV was housed in a large wooden furniture cabinet any game consoles or peripherals literally sat atop the television set. It was also common for people to decorate the top of the TV set with pictures of family members, doilies, clocks, or other odds and ends including seasonal offerings. Every December the top of our TV was home to various Christmas nicknacks to make merry in honor of the time. Primary fixtures atop our TV were a VCR (complete with 80’s grey plastic housing) an NES, a rabbit ears antenna (with the circular portion for UHF), and an opening picture frame with my baby photo on one side and my most recent school photo on the other. I’m sure other homes had similar layouts.
Need to change the channel? Some of the higher end console TV’s had digital buttons but ours used old fashioned dials. There were two sets of dials on ours. One for VHF stations and one for UHF stations. As a kid I was terrified of Freddy Krueger. One year around Halloween a local TV affiliate was playing one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and as I turned the TV on it just happened to be tuned in to that particular station. I screamed and turned off the TV immediately. I wanted to watch a program but could not face the prospect of seeing Freddy. Fortunately my dad had a solution for me. While the TV was off he advised me to turn the dial to a different channel so that when I turned it back on I would not have to worry. That wouldn’t be possible today.
Opening a door on the front of the console allowed access to various other dials and knobs. Tint, color, brightness, contrast, sharpness. I had no idea what these things did as I was told never to touch them. I’m sure there were some other buttons and knobs in there as well but since I wasn’t allowed access to them my memory of these aspects is only vague. I do recall our tint being out of whack the first time we hooked up my NES however causing the water to look purple. I didn’t do it.
Speaking of adjustments, these were the twilight days of the local TV repairman making house calls to fix a non-working TV. We had an older guy that would come by and check out our TV if it wouldn’t turn on or had screen problems. He’d pull it away from the wall, take the back off, fiddle around for awhile, then hand us an invoice and give us a fly swatter. Once we quit using these types of TV’s I don’t recall us ever having a TV repaired again. If one stopped working it was simply haul the thing to the garbage and buy a brand new one. Technology is certainly more evolved today but there is something to be said about producing something that can actually be repaired affordably.
In the mid to late 90’s these older TV’s began falling out of favor fast and were no longer being manufactured. Entertainment centers had become more popular since they offered storage for VHS tapes and game cartridges, shelves for VCR’s and game consoles, and a better wire management system. Since most homes were moving to cable the need to rearrange and shift an antenna was no longer an issue so space on top of the TV was no longer a concern. As time progressed the homes that still used a console TV were households of elderly people or hillbillies that would set a newer working TV on top of one of these older non-working units. I hate to say that our household was one of the latter. Convention would dictate that we at least drape something over the screen so it simply looked like a TV stand, but alas that wasn’t the case. Just two big screens staring right at you as you sat on the couch. Although I typed this while watching reruns on a 55″ 1080P plasma, part of me still yearns for the days of sitting on the shag carpeting indian style parked in front of a big old wooden TV console.