In Tony Earley’s remarkable memoir “Somehow Form a Family,” he interweaves stories from his childhood in small-town North Carolina with stories from the TV shows he and his sister Shelly watched at the time: All in the Family, The Wonderful World of Disney, The Three Stooges, and above all The Brady Bunch. And by “interweaves” I don’t mean that he tells a story from his childhood and then tells a story from the TV. I mean that the worlds of TV and of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, are knitted together so tightly, often within the same sentence, that sometimes you can’t tell them apart:
Shelly had a crush on Bobby Brady; I had a crush on Jan. Jan had braces, I had braces. Jan had glasses, I had glasses. Their daddy was an architect. Our daddy lived in a trailer in town with a poster of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner on the living room wall. The Coyote held the Road Runner firmly by the neck. The caption on the poster said, “Beep, Beep your ass.” I lay in bed at night and imagined being married to Jan Brady but having an affair with Marsha. I wondered how we would tell Jan, what Marsha and I would do then, where we would go. Greg Brady beat me up. I shook his hand and told him I deserved it. Alice refused to speak to me. During this time Mrs. White died. I heard the ambulance in the middle of the night. It sounded like the one on Emergency.
Aside from being a beautiful and sad memoir of a family coming apart and coming back together, “Somehow Form a Family” portrays more clearly than anything I’ve ever read the way that the television we watch as children infiltrates our minds. Kids’ TV can become as important a part of our memories of childhood as, say, the friend next door or the teacher who was mean to us. Though I know I also played outside and read books and argued with my mom about eating salad, my conception of myself as a child absolutely includes sitting on the floor of our family room in Wisconsin, watching G.I. Joe or Muppet Babies or Family Ties or M.A.S.K. What’s remarkable about those memories of children’s television is not how bad many of the shows were. It’s the happiness those bad shows delivered—how content that content made me.
For the next month, Slate will be exploring the art, the business, and the technology of children’s television in a pop-up blog, Screen Time. These days, the 21-inch Zenith that revolutionized the Earley family’s life has been replaced by an iPad, dad’s phone, a flat-screen bought cheap at Walmart. The four channels the Earleys could get (Channel 3 from Charlotte, Channel 13 from Asheville,Channel 7 from Spartanburg, Channel 4 from Greenville) have grown into an unlimited buffet of cable networks, streaming services, quasi-educational DVDs, and YouTube channels—which themselves have metastasized into uncountable, unrecognizable new forms, as inexplicable to parents like me as I expect M.A.S.K. was to my parents in the 1980s.
On Screen Time we’ll try to make sense of the current kids’ TV universe while also dipping back into the past. We’ll ask Slate’s critics to explore the canon of children’s television and ask kids for their own opinions on what they watch now. We’ll see how kids’ TV has made life in America easier for immigrant families, how cable TV has served as a social and class divider, how streaming networks use their audience data to craft optimized children’s entertainment, and how an 8-foot-tall purple alien baby sparked a new battle in the culture wars.
To start with, we’ve got Leigh Alexander writing about those bewildering YouTube thickets that have driven parents to distraction in recent weeks, urging us to worry less about our precious babies’ eyeballs and more about what algorithms are doing to all of us. And Rebecca Onion asks the question that plagues many parents: Can I keep my children screen-free without being a total jerk about it?
So put on your warm jammies, grab a couple of Pop-Tarts, and settle in. The sun’s slanting through the blinds; it’s a beautiful Saturday morning, but no way are you going outside. Mom’s still asleep and will be for hours. Welcome to Screen Time.