by James Wallace Harris, 12/31/22
I’ve lived long enough to experience a number of technological revolutions in television. I was born in 1951, and some of my earliest memories are of watching TV in 1955. TV screens were much smaller then, and the image was in black and white. Well, the whites weren’t white, and the blacks weren’t black, and the image quality was halfway between a black-and-white half-tone photo in the newspaper and a Tri-X black-and-white photograph. What we saw on the screen was small, and fuzzy, giving the impression we had bad eyesight.
Although we couldn’t afford it, my father got us a color TV in 1965. Wow. That was the first big tech breakthrough in television that I remember. And not all shows were broadcast in color. I remember how the TV Guide noted which shows were in [COLOR]. As it became more common, they shortened it to [C].
Growing up with black-and-white TV is the main reason why I love old black-and-white movies. And for two reasons. First, I learned to love watching stories visually told in black and white, and second, early TV ran old movies from the 1930s and 1940s that were mostly black and white.
The next big tech innovation was cable TV. No more messing with the antenna anymore. Cable TV took us far beyond ABC, CBS, and NBC. But the biggest tech change was in the later part of the 1970s when we got a VCR. That opened up time shifting and freed us from the TV schedule. But more importantly, it allowed us to buy or rent movies and TV shows. We had more freedom than ever for choosing what we wanted to watch and when.
We didn’t know how bad the image quality of VHS was until we could buy DVDs. A couple decades later we got large flatscreen TVs that could do 720p and 1080i and realized we needed Blu-ray discs. Then came streaming TV services that freed us from the disc. I’ve gone months or even years without using a DVD. Susan has a big collection of Christmas movies she watches each December, but this year I noticed she streamed most of those movies.
We could almost give away our DVD/BD library. But not quite. Every once in a while I’ll want to watch something that no streaming service offers, and no site rents. Sometimes these forgotten shows are available on YouTube, but usually not. That’s when I have to return to the disc.
I wanted to show Susan Northern Exposure to see if she wanted it to be our next series to watch together every night. It’s nowhere to stream or rent online. Luckily, I have seasons 1-4 on DVD. But they are on flippy discs which I hate, and seasons 3 and 4 didn’t use the original music. The music was an enchanting feature of the series, but the producers didn’t foresee they’d have to pay expensive royalties if they resold their show on disc. [See explanation.]
If Northern Exposure was on a streaming service I didn’t already subscribe to, I would subscribe to that service just to watch it. Or I’d buy a digital copy on Amazon. After that, I’d want to buy it on Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the only complete series for sale on Region 1 discs still doesn’t have the original music. There are Blu-ray and DVD sets from Great Britain but they are expensive and Region 2 discs.
Fans of the show on Amazon are spending $170 for the Blu-ray sets and another $170 for a Region-free Blu-ray player. I’m not going to spend $340. So, I got out my old DVDs but discovered that my Sony Blu-ray player was dead. I haven’t used it in a very long while. Streaming really has changed us. Luckily, I have a cheap $29 Region-free DVD player I had to buy it to watch Love in a Cold Climate because I could only find that old series used on Region 2 discs. Downgrading to DVD is how we watched the pilot of Northern Exposure last night.
The image quality was a step down – 480i. And the DVD player was poorly designed with a terrible remote. And that release on flippy discs forced us to watch previews for several TV shows from back in the 1990s each time we start the player.
Quite a downgrade in TV watching. Still, the 4:3 image on my 65″ screen was far better than what we saw in the summer of 1990 on a 25″ screen. I could say it was a retro-nostalgic experience, but I’m too addicted to the current state of television technology to be satisfied. I’m awful tempted to spend the $103 and get the British Region 2 DVD set. That’s a lot more money than the American Region 1 $39 DVD set of the complete series, but it has the original music that I’ve ached to hear again. I really want the Blu-ray version, but it’s just too damn expensive.
For now, we’ll try the old DVDs to see if we get hooked again on a show we both loved thirty years ago.
14 thoughts on “Downgrading to DVD – When Streaming TV Fails Us”
As I recall Northern Exposure was a sanitized tamed cute-sy version of Twin Peaks. What’s your opinion of that.
Twin Peaks began in April 1990 and Northern Exposure started that July. Because of development time I doubt if Twin Peaks was a direct influence. Often we get similar shows at the same time. I assume the pop culture climate inspires that.
But you make me want to watch Twin Peaks again.
Many thanks for this overview, Jim! I’m a bit behind on technology (in spite of my love for science fiction) and my wife and I haven’t yet graduated from DVDs to Netflix, etc. Most of our movie-watching is on DVDs borrowed from the public library.
I have fond memories of TV Guide, and still remember some of the announcements and articles in their pages regarding the original Planet of the Apes films and TV show when they were shown over 1973 and 1974. I was nine or ten at the time, and was the Planet of the Apes equivalent of a Trekkie. TV was a big part of this for me. I first saw the original films on TV before I got around to seeing them in a theatre.
P.S. Best wishes to you and your wife and all your family and readers for the coming year!
You might try Black Lodge Video. it’s a wonderful place. Matt knows everything about movies and you can explore genres or themes, such as American film noir. He has TV shows too. Everything I’ve ever wanted to see, he has.
There are still video stores around? Wow. I might have to visit there just for the nostalgia rush.
It is way more than a video store. There’s food, video games, and all kinds of one of a kind events. Matt programs the Malcolm drive in time warps and he really is so knowledgeable about movies. You’d love it.
I feel nostalgic when I recall browsing in Blockbuster Video and similar places back in the nineties. One of the few remaining video and DVD outlets in Vancouver, Black Dog Video, recently closed its doors, although they still sell DVDs, etc., online.
If Northern Exposure ever spent to money to get rights to the original music and produced the series on bluray or on a streaming service, I would be right there to buy them as well. Such an amazing show.
But less than $340?
Yes, I would want it to be reasonably affordable. Though I would likely be willing to pay a higher price for that show than I would for most others.
Thanks for that Jim. Now imagine building TV stations so you can watch 60s TV on small CRTs… 🙂
I actually have two in my house. One is KGJ Channel 9, broadcasting whatever actually aired 55 years ago (to the week). The other is KOLD Channel 13, which plays reruns of shows I want on random. It’s got Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and 12 O’Clock High and Burke’s Law, etc. So now I can have the period experience of flipping the channel when I don’t like what I’m watching!
Another show from that time period was Highlander, which I really enjoyed. Great mixture of fantasy, history and sword-fighting. With a 90’s vibe to it, like this show.
Also a show called “Due South” from the early 90’s, about a canadian mountie who moves to chicago. All the stereotypes of a mountie… a cop show with comedy undertones. The pilot episode was very good, the rest of the series not so much. Series available on youtube now.