TV Picture Quality in the 1960's
January 3, 2011 12:32 PM   Subscribe

How bad was the picture quality on TVs in the 1960's? Is the terrible definition shown on Mad Men correct?

My wife and I have been tearing through Mad Men lately and it always strikes me as odd that everytime a TV is shown the picture is horribly grainy or its moving frames. I grew up in a rural area with no cable, so I can appreciate that picture quality hasn't always been high def. Still I just assumed that people living in cities got decent pictures because they were a lot closer to the broadcast antenna. Kind of a silly question, I know, but come on Metafilter help me out.
posted by John Frum to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It wasn't always reception problems. Pre-solid state TVs were finicky, and required lots of fiddling, tube-testing and finger-crossing in addition to any antenna adjustments.
posted by sageleaf at 12:39 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yep, it was about that bad in my childhood, until we got cable when I was about 11 or 12. Not totally up on the geography of Mad Men or that NY/NJ/CT area in general, but I do know the Drapers live well outside of the city. By comparison, I grew up partly in Pensacola Florida, we mostly got Mobile Alabama network affiliates, and when we were using a rooftop antenna we got 2.5 channels with lots of snow and static from those stations across the bay.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:41 PM on January 3, 2011

I'm 64, so I remember quite a bit. I lived in an area approximately 40 miles from Philadelphia and 60 miles from NYC.
Reception depended on the quality of the antenna you had. The guy with a rotator on his antenna was king. Basically there were 3 channels you watched. 3, 6, and 10 in the Phila area and 2, 7, and 11 in NYC. NBC, ABC, and CBS in that order. Damn, I remember there were a couple other channels but I can't remember what they were. You almost never watched them anyway.
You'd get interference from airplanes and trucks and hot rods that didn't have some type of shield on their ignitions. Check out pictures of 60's era Corvette engines to see what I mean. Ham radio was big back then and if you lived near one of those guys you had to put up with them if they didn't have filters on their gear.
posted by JohnE at 12:45 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes. My grandmother still has that TV. Gah.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:49 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes. TV was just that way. Unless you smacked it upside its head. Then it was great!
posted by thinkpiece at 12:51 PM on January 3, 2011

Best answer: I was a kid in the 60s, near downtown Detroit and yes, it could be just like that. Rolling pictures (adjust the "vertical hold" knob) and snowy pictures (adjust the antenna and the fine tune dial behind the channel dial) were common. Tall buildings could interfere with the signal, as could planes flying overhead, trucks passing by, or even people walking through the room.
posted by The Deej at 12:52 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, to give you an idea, most tvs not only had the ability to change channels by turning the knob (chunka, chunka, chunka, chunkachunkachunkaDAD: Hey, EASY!!!!) but they also had a fine tune adjustment, usually a ring around the the channel changer knob that you had to turn to fine-tune the channel (I think that's where the word "fine-tune" comes from). And once you got the picture in clearly, you might have to get up in two minutes to do it again.
posted by paulina961 at 12:56 PM on January 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

yes, and to expand on thinkpiece's comment, there was indeed a special skill to hitting tvs in just the right spot with just the right pressure to optimize the picture. i have no idea why is needed to be done (reseating tubes perhaps) but it was very satisfying to be able to do this well.
posted by quarterframer at 12:56 PM on January 3, 2011

Still I just assumed that people living in cities got decent pictures because they were a lot closer to the broadcast antenna.

If you were right in NYC you potentially had worse reception than just outside the city due to interference from all the tall, densely-packed buildings.

I lived about 15 miles away from the city proper in the 1970s, pre-cable TV. We had a couple of TV sets that were holdovers from the 1960s. If they were hooked up to the giant TV antenna on the roof of our 4-story Victorian house the reception was pretty good. If it was a set just hooked up to rabbit ears there was a lot of patience, fiddling, tin foil, etc. involved in getting a decent signal.

I'd say the depictions are accurate. Keep in mind some of the televisions depicted on Mad Men are from the 1950s so that's another drop in quality.
posted by mikepop at 12:57 PM on January 3, 2011

Having watched TV since the very beginning I agree that the reception was not that great. But something to remember is that it was the content and novelty of the programming and not the quality of the screen. It was new and exciting at the time.
posted by JayRwv at 12:58 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

My grandpa has told the tale that he brought one of the box trucks home from work one day, and the unshielded ignition made the TV do weird stuff. Hell, my 1970 Impala literature boasts on the "shielded ignition". (all it is, is a second capacitor in the distributor. Four years later, High Energy Ignition - solid state - came out in Chevys.) So, at least, there's something to what JohnE says.
posted by notsnot at 1:00 PM on January 3, 2011

Best answer: Still I just assumed that people living in cities got decent pictures because they were a lot closer to the broadcast antenna.

You're not wrong, but the arrangement of buildings is still crucial: the CN Tower in Toronto was built as a broadcast aerial in the mid-seventies. Toronto's southern boundary is Lake Ontario so the land gradually slopes upwards as one travels northwards. The downtown core (including media broadcast centres) was very much near the lakeshore, which meant that in the fifties and sixties any buildings to the north of a brodcast aerial tended to block signals. The donut at the bottom of the Skypod is the radome with the UHF and VHF broadcast equipment. It is around 1100 feet off the ground, and for the last thirty-five years or so, the maximum height of buildings in Toronto has been held to 950 feet or so, so as not to block signals.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:09 PM on January 3, 2011

I'm a little younger than JohnE but yes to what he said. My father would freak out when when raced our slot cars during Cronkite. Yes to vertical hold, also to smacking the TV on the side. We had a UHF adapter, too.
posted by fixedgear at 1:10 PM on January 3, 2011

Yeah, a lot of the reception problems in a big city come from multipath interference, which occurs when reflections of the primary signal bounce off tall buildings, passing cars, buses, trucks, and planes, and arrive slightly out of phase with the primary signal, wreaking all sorts of havoc with the displayed picture.
posted by Nothlit at 1:10 PM on January 3, 2011

Consider also that Mad Men may be showing broadcasts that were originally done with Kinescope, which offers a different picture quality than modern standards. Here's another example of a kinescope from 1964.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:10 PM on January 3, 2011

Best answer: Yes. Reception could be bad, and often varied from channel to channel, and even the ideal picture quality was much poorer than what people are used to today.

Where I grew up, 70 mi from NYC in the Hudson Valley, in the 60s and early 70s, there were only three network channels and three independent channels we could watch. Often in the summer, when the ionosphere got riled up, reception was much worse than it was the rest of the year. I remember channels 2 and 4 (CBS and NBC respectively) often being fuzzy and unwatchable in August.

As others have mentioned, lots of fiddling with the set was a given: fine tune dial, horizontal and vertical holds, color, contrast, and brightness balance, and as other said the occasional whack to jolt a failing tube into giving a little bit more. I vividly recall going to the drugstore with my dad with a bag of vacuum tubes to plug into the tester machine to see if they needed replacement. And of course all fiddling and channel changing required getting up and walking over to the set.
posted by aught at 1:47 PM on January 3, 2011

Another data point on reception - I live in a UK city with tall buildings and I still have atrocious telly reception. Constantly grainy and foggy though rarely the moving frames, which might be more to do with the technology of the TV itself.

Since they've turned off the analogue signal this functionally means that you either have to have cable or satellite where I am - digital doesn't grain, it pixellates, hiccups and doesn't give you any telly. Yeah, still grumpy about that...
posted by Coobeastie at 1:49 PM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grew up in the 90s with a black and white television set that my mom had purchased in order to watch the Watergate hearings. Even though its vintage was the seventies and I was watching television in the nineties, picture quality was still fairly poor, and signals were usually extremely finicky.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:59 PM on January 3, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers. I marked a few favorites, but all of these were helpful. They also took me back to my childhood of fiddling with the TV antenna to get in that fourth channel. I'm glad to see others were in the same boat.
posted by John Frum at 2:02 PM on January 3, 2011

Were you asking specifically about reception? The actual transmitted picture quality was rather poor compared to standard definition (analog) telecasts of the mid 2000s prior to digital.

Even TV footage from the early 90s looks poor by later standards. For video, this is especially apparent in historical sports footage.

The film-to-tape methods used prior to the modern telecine introduced sometime in the late 70s made for some very wobbly (gate weave) shows and commercials in the 60s.

A lot of what you see of the old stuff today has been restored and the gate weave reduced via digital tracking and noise reduction, etc., so it looks better now than it did when originally broadcast.
posted by bz at 3:47 PM on January 3, 2011

Broadcast analog TV reception was always horrible in much of Manhattan, because of the interference from skyscrapers and what-not.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:41 PM on January 3, 2011

I remember about once a week my dad or one of my brothers going up on the roof to adjust the antenna while the rest of us shouted, "Nope, nope, yep right there, nope too far!"
posted by tamitang at 5:49 PM on January 3, 2011

You bet. Rabbit ears, hitting the TV, adjusting the inputs, everything. Static, a rolling picture, totally weird color. And no remote.

(I do miss the communality of everyone being able to only watch a few channels, and thus having more shared experiences around the cliched water cooler.)
posted by sdn at 7:21 PM on January 3, 2011

Note: you could get more work done back then.
posted by ovvl at 7:32 PM on January 3, 2011

What about buildings in Manhattan that had large antennas on the roof for the benefit of the whole building? What kind of reception did those provide? I grew up here but I'm not really old enough to remember that era.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:34 PM on January 3, 2011

tamitang: "I remember about once a week my dad or one of my brothers going up on the roof to adjust the antenna while the rest of us shouted, "Nope, nope, yep right there, nope too far!""

There's a good sequence showing this in the Coen Brothers' movie A Serious Man.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:53 AM on January 5, 2011

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