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WOLF: The TV might be on but is anyone actually watching?

COLUMN: Viewing habits have vastly changed over the years
A 1980s-era small TV required close promixity to the watcher for channel-changing purposes. (Facebook photo)

The television is often on in our house. Rather, multiple televisions are often on in our house.

But rarely is anyone doing what for much of my life I would have described as ‘watching TV’.

It was much simpler back in the day, when for years I was actually the remote control. I can still remember the ‘thunk, thunk’ sound as you went around the dial, waiting for my parents to decide on a program. I tried to sit close, so I didn’t have to keep getting up every time they wanted a new channel, but was told I’d go blind if I was within six feet of the screen for too long.

As a tiny lad, we had a black-and-white TV, maybe a 20-inch model.

I don’t remember it as the ‘main’ TV, but I did get custody of it for myself at one point, when we got our first colour set for the living room.

The black-and-white special moved to the basement, where it became the centre of my sports-watching sanctuary.

Previously, I could only watch live sporting events after the news at night, and then only if my parents didn’t want to watch something else.

We got our first colour TV when I was maybe seven or eight, one of those hefty full-cabinet style deals that weighed about 9,000 pounds.

Back then, you watched nighttime TV as a family. Growing up in Duncan, we were lucky enough to have the Seattle channels and three American networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) among our massive choice from channels 2-13.

I mostly remember the ABC staples (‘Happy Days’, ‘Laverne and Shirley’, ‘Three’s Company’ and ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’).

And when Dad worked afternoons, Mum would let me stay up late and watch British shows on KVOS with her, like ‘On the Buses.’ (“I’ll get you for this, Butler…”).

When Dad worked graveyard, sometimes I’d even get to stay up and watch ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson.

The best times were after school, when I’d rush home to watch ‘Speed Racer’ and Saturday mornings (before my sports games), when I’d sneak 14 spoonfuls of sugar onto my Shreddies and watch a glorious string of cartoons.

Sports, for the most part, were still in black-and-white for years, then the basement TV was replaced with a more streamlined colour model that only weighed about 400 pounds. The giant cabinet remained a living room staple.

I had that 400-pound RCA special as my ‘main’ TV well into my 20s, long after I moved out. Probably still works, wherever it is now.

I knew I’d reached a new level of luxury when I was about 16 and I got my very own colour TV for my bedroom. Imagine that!

It was similar to the one pictured with this piece, which I saw on Facebook and almost purchased for nostalgia purposes alone.

Only issue was I had to have it on a TV tray right beside my bed so I could reach the buttons to change the channel.

Fast forward a few decades, and there’s literally 55-inch smart TVs in every room, even the 12-year-old’s.

But I now watch almost everything on my laptop or my phone.

If you told me as a teenager that I’d be able to stream anything I wanted, in high-definition, to a phone I could take with me anywhere, I would have reported you as a witch.

READ MORE: WOLF: What are some of the best sounds in the world?

The biggest problem I face now is I have the screen attention span of a gnat.

And with 852 channels and four TVs, there’s not much family watching time.

Even at Christmas, the clan might gather in the living room to watch an old-timey holiday movie, but everyone starts getting the shakes and wants to pull out their phone.

These days, I pretty much have to be doing three things at once.

Might be a hockey game on the big TV the background, but I’m working on my laptop with my phone nearby.

If it’s a Sunday during NFL season, I’m watching multiple games on multiple devices. The 12-year-old doesn’t watch full sitcoms, he’s watching YouTube or TikTok snippets.

And I feel shame every time I fall down a Facebook reels wormhole.

If I do find a show I like, I binge-watch a string of episodes, my laptop on the go the entire time. It’s crazy.

How are your own watching habits? Do you still watch TV routinely like you always did? Do you miss the joy of having only 12 channels? I’d love to hear some of your favourite TV watching memories.

PQB News/Vancouver Island Free Daily editor Philip Wolf welcomes your questions, comments and story ideas. He can be reached via email at or by phone at 250-905-0029.

Philip Wolf

About the Author: Philip Wolf

I’ve been involved with journalism on Vancouver Island for more than 30 years, beginning as a teenage holiday fill-in at the old Cowichan News Leader.
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