Cable TV in the 90s (Part 1): The 90s


When I was a kid, I was obsessed with cable TV. As compared to the fairly polished digital look of even the scrappiest television networks today, deep cable of the early and mid-90s was a weird and wonderful no-mans land, full of absurd and unusual video of questionable origin. Cable networks that are well-known and well-funded today were then flimsy, low-budget affairs. E! Entertainment Television had just launched, and its programming was a daily 2-hour loop of a languidly-paced Entertainment Tonight-ish newsmagazine. TLC actually stood for “The Learning Channel,” and was mostly horrifically dry demonstrations of math problems. And Spike TV was then called The Nashville Network, home of endless Hee-Haw reruns.

I was always proud of our cable service, since it offered nearly 100 channels in total (as opposed to 65 or so in the adjacent suburbs), but most of these extra channels were chaff at best — public access and local school district channels, whose programming usually included home movie-quality footage of high school lacrosse. At best, you could see some middle school talent show. Pretty dire stuff.

But past even the public access garbage, there was treasure to be found. My two favorite channels were the very pictures of obscurity: a channel called “The 90s” (channel 69) and an obscure pay-per-view channel called “Action Pay-Per-View.” I’ll write about my oddball pay-per-view obsession another time, but for now I’d like to talk about The 90s.

The 90s

In retrospect, it seems amazing that a channel like this could even exist, let alone get national carriage. Born out of a Chicago-area art college, The 90s (“The New Channel for the New Decade”) featured video art, ranging from independent documentaries to video essays to weird and experimental stuff. Most of it was sourced from a non-profit video art library called Video Data Bank.

Now, as a bored pre-teenager living in whitewashed suburbia, I was simply not prepared for anything this outside-the-norm. But unbeknownst to me, the era’s advances in video technology was beginning to make it possible for near-amateurs to create truly personal, if not always good, video works about their lives and their unique experiences. While video art had been around since the 70s, the low cost and portability of new, higher-quality formats like Video8 and SVHS resulted in something of an artistic boom time. “The 90s,” its very name hopeful of the new directions in media and information this would open up, was the first cable network for this sort of content.

And so, 24/7, this cable network would show an eclectic selection of experimental weirdness, probably carefully curated but to the untrained eye, seemingly an unfiltered firehose of bizarre imagery, of experiences far removed from my own, with production values too low to remove the stench of reality. I was like a sponge for this stuff. It was all so inexplicable, and so completely outside the realm of every other piece of media I had access to at the time. At the same time, it felt provocative and dirty, and even a little bit dangerous. It also, as would be important to any teenage boy, occasionally featured nudity.

I will never know the names of most of the works I saw on The 90s. I remember seeing food vendors in Vietnam, demonstrating how they lit a dish on fire in a wok before flinging it over the heads of their patrons and catching it on a plate. I remember hearing the narration of an American, isolated and homesick, as he tried to make his way through Japan, camcorder in hand. There was the story of the guy who was preparing a car to run in a demolition derby, despite constant nagging from everyone that he had a death wish. (The ending made it seem like he might have, in fact, died in the derby, though the narration sure seemed like it was recorded afterwards.) There were animations, poems, visuals. I do recall the name of one work, which I took in on an early Saturday morning with the volume turned low, so as not to wake my family. “Delirium,” a 23-minute very personal documentary of a the artist’s mother and her strange, non-specific “female hysterical disorder,” which may or may not have been real, but nonetheless was a label that affected both their lives. Light-hearted but disturbing and thought-provoking, even though I couldn’t have been more than 14 or so at the time.

There was a lot of chaff in there too. I recall seeing one program open with the title cards, “What you are about to see is a play. The dialogue is part of a script, and the people you see are actors in an open environment. The arrests you see, however, are real.” Following this was amateur hand-held footage of a protest rally for god knows what. There were also a ton of panic-stricken left-wing documentaries, trying desperately to shine a light on poverty and corruption, but usually just tripping over themselves.

“The 90s” didn’t, in fact, last the decade it was named after; in fact, I don’t think it lasted more than a few years, most probably having lost its funding in that decade’s culture wars. Today I can barely even find evidence online of its existence. When it finally disappeared from our channel lineup I was crushed. Lacking even the concept of the internet at this age, The 90s, for all its faults, was a window into a strange adult landscape that, to a young teen, often didn’t make sense but was nonetheless intoxicating. The very raw and emotional nature made it feel like a direct line into the confusing and often terrifying world around me. I loved it.

I’ve had brushes with video art since, especially having gone to art school and frequently visiting Museum of Modern Art in NYC. As with most people I’m put off by the genre’s inherent pretentiousness, and its crap-to-quality ratio is, like all forms of modern art, impenetrably high. In the modern age of YouTube and Vimeo, where video is something that can be produced by the phones in our pockets, video art seems like a conceptual antiquity: the novelty of once-new technology that has since achieved ubiquity and is no longer even a remotely curious object. But even though it might feel more established and less exciting, there is still amazing work being done, if you know where to dig. And thanks to YouTube and Vimeo, most of it is easily available.

But I do miss having a place like “The 90s,” where I could stumble upon something weird and interesting and have absolutely no idea what I’m watching or where it came from. If the internet has robbed us of anything, it’s the mystery of the unknown.

Pilot from peter philip on Vimeo.

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3 responses to “Cable TV in the 90s (Part 1): The 90s

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Cable TV in the 90s (Part 1): The 90s | Justin has Media OCD -- Topsy.com

  2. I have two points:

    First, I believe you got cable TV before I did. When I was a child, it was broadcast TV only for me. We had a proud, clunky antenna mounted on the top of our house, and it received a solid TEN channels: FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC, NBC, ABC, and three UHF stations before there was UPN, WB, and then CW. I never actually saw Ren & Stimpy during its original, pure-state run, except for one time I went over to a friend’s house and we saw part of an episode. That one episode fragment drove me to purchase a pack of the trading cards to show off at school how badass I was for having experienced Ren & Stimpy and flashing a glimpse of a connection to “cable.”

    When we finally did get cable, it was a huge deal for us. This was back in the TCI Communications days where there was an “A” and a “B” split and far less than a hundred channels. I remember the linear pay-per-view and how it was a real “treat” to be able to catch a new movie after phoning in the order! And of course, we’d use our VHS recorder to keep the movie for additional watching later. The only channel I remember watching on more than occasion was of course Sci-Fi Channel, back before the dark times and it was pillaged by wrestling and a lack of vowels. Stargate SG-1 and MST3K were definitely staples for me, but so were the Saturday night movies.

    And one movie I do remember quite well watching on cable was of course Last Action Hero. Some may say it stinks, but I thought it was a ball.

    • I can’t wait to write about my pay-per-view obsession. I’ll probably get to that this week. But I also had TCI’s split A/B cable service (they had about 5 different names over the course of years — United Cable, United Artists Cable, TCI Cablevision, one or two others I’m forgetting, then Comcast). I have fond memories of watching Ren and Stimpy in Nickelodeon’s much-hyped Saturday night “SNICK” programming block, which was mostly pretty terrible low-budget sitcoms IIRC.

      Ah, memories. It’s almost absurd just how much of my early history can be traced to random cable channel surfing.

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