Do You Know What This Is? It Was a Portal To Magical Things For ’80s Kids
Do you recognize this thing?
It is a cable box from the mid-1980s. Technically it's a Jerrold JSX-3 CATV Cable Converter Switch Box. But to me, it was one of the most important devices in history.
I was lucky enough to grow up in western Nebraska, AKA The Middle of the Middle of Nowhere in the 1980s. Sure, lucky because of the clean air and wide open spaces. I was also lucky because since we were so far away from any place with a TV signal, we had cable TV since the 70s.
Cable TV was developed in the middle of the 20th century to bring TV signals to places that couldn't get them over the air through an antenna. In my town, we could kind of get a PBS signal, and maybe one other station depending on the weather.
For a while, cable TV was just the networks, like NBC, CBS, ABC, public television (gotta have Sesame Street), and maybe something like HBO.
But, in the 1980s things changed. Cable networks started to become a thing. The Weather Channel, CNN, ESPN, USA, MTV, A&E! Can you believe it? A whole channel just for the weather! One for sports!
If you weren't there when cable exploded, think about when the internet became a thing. Or when social media took over. It was a huge change in the way we got information.
As a precocious adolescent, I loved, loved, loved cable TV. And that Jerrold JSX-3 CATV Cable Converter Switch Box was my first portal to adventure...and thousands of hours of Beastmaster.
It worked like this. You set that box on top of your TV. Then you used an adaptor to connect the box to the tv and plugged it into the cable from outside.
To watch something on one of the 36 channels, you'd turn the TV to channel 3. With the knob. After you got up and walked to the tv. Then you could stand by the set and flip through the wonders of the universe.
That magic box brought 10-year-old me MTV. That's 1986 MTV when it meant something. We had two radio stations in my area and three of them were county music stations. But, now I have access to all the music they had in Denver and LA. From Huey Lewis to Ozzy to Run DMC. Plus Martha Quin and that guy with the hair.
And it was not just the music. MTV and Nickelodeon introduced me to The Monkees, Monty Python, soooooo many stand-up comics, Dragnet, The State, John Stewart, and Randy of the Redwoods.
TBS made sure I got to experience the best, of what they could get, of 70's sitcoms, and movies. Were they always good movies? No, not really, but they filled the time.
My love of history and government were sparked by flipping through the channels and finding great documentaries from A&E and Discovery and live coverage of the US Congress on C-Span.
I learned about my parents' childhoods from Nick at Nite. Rob Petrey, Maynard G. Krebs, and Joe Friday taught me about the 1960s. The Brady Bunch handled the '70s. Even Lucy was around for lessons on the '50s.
But, the cable TV discovery that has shaped my personality more than anything was on the USA Network on Friday and Saturday nights; Night Flight.
Like the early days of the internet, Night Flight was basically a free for all that kept you company through the late night hours.
It was kind of like radio, there was a voiceover from Pat Prescott over awesome computer graphics telling us what was coming up on the show. The voice would also welcome us back from commercials and add interesting tidbits throughout the show.
I was music videos, weird movies, video art projects, stand-up and sketch comedy, documentaries, and anything weird or alternative. It was cult pop culture feed straight into my brain.
It's where I first saw Refer Madness and Andy Warhol's weird movies. It's where I met John Waters and Devine. It's what introduced me to Atomic TV's mashups of various Cold War-era footage and propaganda.
And the music videos were amazing. From avant-garde musicians to European new-wave groups, reggae, the heavy metal MTV was scared of, alternative bands, and niche novelty songs.
It aired on USA through the end of the decade and faded away through the 1990s as the cable industry matured out of its wild west days.
It was a show that could only exist when the medium was new, nobody had figured out how to really use it, and the bosses weren't paying attention.