Nothing Up My Sleeve

Jon Gallagher

Converter Boxes Nothing New        


Although the official date of converting analog TV signals to digital signals has been pushed back to June 12th, most TV stations in the nation switched over to digital this past Tuesday night at midnight. This means that if you’ve got an old TV AND you’re using an antenna to receive TV stations, as of this past Tuesday night at 11:59pm, you just became a former TV viewer, unless you bought something called a “converter box”.

For those of you with older televisions who are hooked up to either cable or Satellite TV, nothing has changed.

I didn’t realize how many people still used old TVs and antennas to watch their idiot boxes. Based on the way converter boxes flew off the shelves (at least at our store), hardly anyone had newer TVs, or cable or satellite.

I’m sure that none of these boxes were sold to people who just didn’t understand they really didn’t need one (please insert the proper amount of sarcasm into that sentence as you read it).

For those of us who are really old and have lived in the Galesburg (or Peoria) area for any length of time (like before there were human footprints on the moon), converter boxes are nothing new.

Prior to cable TV, we all had to watch TV from an antenna. There was no other way. In the Galesburg area, we got our stations from the Quad Cities, channels 4 (WHBF-CBS), 6 (WOC-NBC), and 8 (WQAD-ABC), and from Peoria, channels 19 (WIRL-ABC), 25 (WEEK-NBC), and 31 (WMBD-CBS). This was nice because if one of the network affiliates preempted a program for something local, we could just tune into the corresponding network from the other city.

The problem was that most TV sets back then only got channels 2 through 13. Those were VHF (Very High Frequency) stations which means we could watch TV from the Quad Cities, not from Peoria unless we had either a new fangled TV that received UHF (Ultra High Frequency) signals or we had a converter box.

My family owned an ancient black and white set that required a pair of pliers to change channels (I’m told that my playpen was left too close to the TV one time, thus the absence of the channel knob). It didn’t get UHF so while those around us could watch Peoria channels, we were stuck with just the three stations from the Moline area.

My friends would tell me of the wonderful shows that were available on Peoria TV. They could watch re-runs of Superman and something called The Captain Jinx show. I was stuck with Captain Ernie’s Cartoon Showboat and the Three Stooges. I begged my parents to go buy whatever it was we needed to watch Peoria TV, but being able to watch Captain Jinx and Salty Sam didn’t justify the expense of buying a converter box and a UHF antenna.

I guess there was good reason for not getting the box. My older brother had watched Superman before I was born and as the story goes, he had tied a dishtowel around his neck, mounted a windmill at my grandparents’ farm, and attempted to fly. He won’t talk about it much now, instead preferring to glare at me whenever I ask about it. My parents probably didn’t want me climbing up somewhere in an attempt to defy gravity.

There’s something to be said for nagging, I guess, because my dad finally found someone who had a converter box that they didn’t need anymore. A family in our neighborhood had purchased a new fangled TV that had UHF channels built in, so they didn’t need the box. They gave it to us. Dad hooked up a cheap pair of rabbit ears (actually what we needed was the round antenna that went with the rabbit ears), and we were in business.

It was a dark brown box with a cream colored dial with the number 13 at one end of the dial and the number 83 at the other end. There were some random numbers in between those two, more or less to give you an idea of where you were on the dial, but not specifically. The TV had to be set to channel 3 or 4 (depending on which one wasn’t in use), the box had to be flipped on, and then the glories of Peoria TV were available.


Okay. So I got to see my first ever episode of Superman. This just precipitated me running around the house in long underwear with a towel pinned on my shoulders and trying to figure out some way to actually fly. Unlike my older brother, my attempts centered on doing bellyflops on the floor, and later on the bed when I figured out that the floor was less forgiving than a down mattress.

And I got to see Captain Jinx and Salty Sam. Peoria has recently honored these two gentlemen who brought so much joy into the lives of kids back then. Someday maybe I’ll devote a column not only to that show, but to the wasted hours I spent watching Captain Ernie (WOC-TV) and Grandpa Happy (WHBF-TV) as well.

It wasn’t until the mid 70s that my family bought a TV that could receive UHF signals without the converter box. By that time, cable TV had found its way to Knoxville and we didn’t need the box anyway.

I tried, in vain, to find a TV around the house that received analog signals so I could watch the official demise of the analog system. Unfortunately, the only TV I have that is analog is an old Sony Watchman, a small handheld TV with a 2.5 inch screen. I turned it on Tuesday morning to see if I could use it, but unfortunately, it’s given up the ghost, and gone to the great electronics graveyard in the sky.

Now as we enter the digital age, instead of having just three (or six) channels with nothing on, we can tune into 57 channels. And as Bruce Springsteen says, there’s still nothing on.

Some things never change.