Share Your Memories of TV Before the Remote Control

Share Your Memories is a monthly column that invites readers to contribute their recollections of what they watched on television and how they watched it. Topics range from obsolete equipment to network programming practices to specific TV shows and everything in between.

Before the Clicker

This month’s column is not about the TV remote control. That’s a topic for another column. No, this month I’d like to hear from readers who remember watching television without the benefit of a remote control.

I don’t. There was always a remote for the TV set in the living room when I was a kid. My parents did have an old, portable black-and-white TV set in the basement when I was growing up. It didn’t have a remote control. I can recall lying on the floor turning the knobs, trying to find a station that was clear enough to watch.

For decades, that’s what television was like for most people. If you wanted to change the channel you had to get up, walk to the television set, and turn a knob. And if you were a kid in the 1950s or 1960s, there’s a good chance you were the remote. Your mom or dad would tell you to change the channel and you did.

Even in the 1970s, most people still didn’t have a remote control. Although the first TV remote controls were introduced in the 1950s, they weren’t popular. According to Slate, only 17 percent of households in the United States had a remote in 1979. The 1980s brought big changes to the television industry, one of which was widespread use of the remote control.

I’m curious to hear from readers who recall watching TV before the remote control came along. Do you think you experienced television differently, not being able to easily change channels? Do you remember wishing there was a way to change channels without having to turn a knob? Can you remember hearing about TV remote controls and wanting to get one?

What was life like before the TV remote control? Were you forced to get up off the couch whenever your parents wanted to watch a different channel? Hit the comments with your recollections and memories.

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9 Replies to “Share Your Memories of TV Before the Remote Control”

  1. I remember in the early ’80s, playing in my bedroom when my mother would call for me to cross the length of the house to change the channel for her.

    (In my memory, this was a regular occurrence, but thinking back logically, I suspect this only happened when she was pregnant with my sister, since we got our first TV with a remote control not long after my sister was born)

  2. Hmm. I thought I was repressing my memories of the pre-remote world, but I probably don’t have many, because we only got three stations and a lot of the time, only two. There probably wasn’t a lot of channel turning.

  3. I don’t recall not having any tvs in the house w/o remote control, since my family bought a 25″ B&W set w/ remote for our living room around Dec. 1969, when I was just 4 years old. The remote, though, still required a lot of clicking, since there were only 4 buttons on it: on/off, channel up, channel down, & mute. This set couldn’t pull in UHF channels normally. It had a converter that didn’t work too well, from what I remember, so I watched PBS programs (only UHF station in our market at the time) in our family room. The set that I watched most of the time was in our family room, another B&W set, this one 19″. I’m sure we wore out the tuner a lot because our network affiliates there were on channels 6, 10 & 13. When I was 11 we moved to a different state, and the network affiliates in market were on channels 2, 4 & 5, w/ PBS on channel 8 and an indie (at the time) station on UHF. I think we did less damage to the tuners after we moved because the stations we watched the most were numerically closer together. We finally got a 2nd-hand color set from my grandmother around Dec. 1979.

    Nowadays tv sets are mostly useless w/o remotes because it seems that very little can be done w/ the set just using the buttons (no longer knobs) on the sets. I do like flat-screen sets, which have reduced the size & weight of tv sets overall, making them much easier to move & use.

  4. There was a good remote-related story in Steve Cox’s book about I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Groucho Marx made a cameo appearance on a 2nd-season episode of the show around 1966, when remote controls were rare, and instead of receiving cash, for which he’d have to pay taxes, he wanted a color tv. A producer of the show brought him a color set after he finished filming his cameo, and Groucho asked “Where’s the clicker?”. When he was told there was no “clicker”, he said he didn’t want the set and was about to throw it out until the producer decided to take it & keep it for himself. I don’t recall if Groucho eventually received a color set w/ remote or not, but I guess he & the producer worked it out somehow.

  5. Life before the remote? Turning channels with pliers.

    I remember when cable remotes first came about. They were long boxes with a numbered scale and a slider that attached to the cable box with wire. But even those were a great improvement over having to turn the channel by hand. I figured out how to change the channels that were tuned in by adjusting potentiometers within the box so it would just show the better channels and skip the junky ones. It was somewhat similar to early VCR tuning.

  6. The first remote I saw was in the early to mid 1960’s. It was pretty basic. There were three button, on, off, channel higher, and channel lower. The last two went up and down the dial. I don’t remember if it was wireless. I didn’t get a remote until I first got cable in 1984.

    1. My family’s first remote in 1980 was wireless, but about the same as Richard’s Remote from years earlier.

  7. I was born in 1966 and grew up in the Seattle suburbs of Bothell/Kenmore. When I was in middle school and high school I stayed home alone if I was mildly ill. I remember being sick and lying on our basement couch and watching TV all day. So that I wouldn’t have to get up to change the channels I would get a long dowel from my dad’s wood shop and using it to press the buttons on the TV we had in the late 1970s. Later, in graduate school, I researched and wrote a cultural history of the remote control!

  8. In the summer of 1956, we moved to Phenix City, Alabama. We brought with us a VHF- only television. Although there were two stations in the area, one was a UHF one so we only got one channel. It was a couple of years later that the UHF channel moved to VHF channel 9. Until then, we had no need for a remote.

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