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WOSTER: Less channels years ago, but shows were memorable

We took in a Riders in the Sky concert the other day and, quite naturally, I got to thinking about cable television.

I got to thinking that direction because one of the cowboy quartet members made a joke about the old days of three television channels and all kinds of programs to watch and the modern situation with a couple of hundred channels and nothing to watch.

The line drew a huge laugh from the audience, which trended toward the more mature side of the greater Pierre demographic and whose members probably can actually remember back to three channels and all the great programming those channels carried.

I'm old enough to remember the time a neighbor kid and I went to another kid's house just to see their television set.

I remember when the first television tower was being built on the lower saddle there at Medicine Butte.

I sometimes stood in our farm yard and watched through binoculars as the huge pieces of metal were moved into place.

And I remember when the tower was complete, our folks bought a small black-and-white television (well, yeah, they did. Who in the world would have dreamed there'd be such a thing as color TV?) and we gathered in the living room to try to pick out the ghosts of Milton Berle and Liberace and Ed Sullivan (and maybe Topo Gigo) from the fuzz and snow that filled the screen.

Things became clearer as we manipulated the rabbit ears of the antenna -- and as each new generation of TV set and station upgrade came along.

I grew up watching KPLO, and I can't quite remember when the other networks showed up on our screen.

They did, though, and for the longest while, it was a three-channel world.

That was plenty, when it brought us Wyatt Earp and Matt Dillon, "The Bounty Hunter" and "Branded," Steve Allen and Walter Cronkite.

I thought that was some pretty good stuff, even when I was in journalism school and one of our professors had us read the "vast wasteland'' speech by Newton Minow, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. I took the liberty of copying and pasting a bit of the speech here:

When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

Minow gave that speech back in 1961, half a century ago, when I was thinking the programs on TV were pretty decent fare.

But, then, I've never been a real high-brow kind of viewer. Rowdy Yates or the brothers from the Ponderosa are about as heavy as it got for me.

My brother-in-law and I were talking about those old days not so long ago.

Both of us were kind of recuperating from joint replacement surgery, so maybe we were a touch loopy from the pain meds.

Anyway, I had The Weather Channel (one of my current favorites) tuned in, and I told the brother-in-law about the promotions I was seeing for new programs.

Among the offerings:

"Coast Guard Alaska," which apparently involves folks jumping from helicopters into frigid water to rescue inept boaters.

"Ice Pilots," a series about people that chip ice from airplanes and fly around in really cold weather.

And "Turbine Cowboys," a brand-new series about workers who climb to the top of those crazy wind turbines and fix things.

The brother-in-law and I were struggling to see how the programs would continue to be compelling week after week. What they needed, I said, was that Brian guy who does the "Disaster DIY'' shows every weekend on the Home and Garden channel.

I'm guessing even Riders in the Sky would find that compelling TV.