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DREAM VACATION: JUST THE SAND, THE SEA AND MY ESSENTIAL TV

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Most people on a long overdue, fun-in-the-sun island vacation wouldn't dream of shelling out perfectly good trinket money to rent a television.

But, much to my wife's chagrin, I felt the need when, on a recent trip to Barbados, I found our beachfront hotel room was without one.I had't even unpacked my swimming trunks before I heard myself arguing rather vaguely that I could get my newspaper to reimburse me for the $35 expense or - at the very least - chalk it up as a business expnse on my taxes. I thought about going without - roughing it. I waited a day. Maybe it was two. Then I broke down, hopeless addict that I am.

Don't get me wrong. I got a tan. I saw the island. I didn't rearrange our schedule around program listings. I watched mostly at night. And besides, I viewed this as a kind of TV anthropology - especially when I realized that Barbados had only one over-the-air signal, CBC (Caribbean Boradcasting Corp.).

Switching on, it was like stepping into an episode of "The Time Tunnel."

To begin with, CBC (wth the exception of weekends) broadcasts for only a few hours in the morning, starting with a five-minute "Thought for the Day" at 5:40 and, after an exercise program, moves on into CNN's "Headline News," which clicks off with the network at 10 a.m.

At 4 p.m., CBC cranks up again with "Sesame Street," a hodgepodge of syndicated and public TV shows leading into "Days of Our Lives" at 6 and the "CBC Evening News at 7," a straightforward, low-tech nightly news show that foregoes the "live-on-the-scene" fanfare for simple reportage.

Prime time brought ABC's "Roseanne," "The Wonder Years" and "MacGyver," the late "Dolly," CBS' canceled "Frank's Place" and "Cagney & Lacey," a 5-minute late newscast, a local game show on native trivia called "Bus Yuh Brain," and a mix of PBS and British television and made-for-TV movies.

All on one channel. And that's when it hit me. What would life be like with just one channel, especially for a refugee from a cable-ravaged society?

How would I live? What would I watch?

I gulped at the thought of it, but reconsidered. Maybe this kind of Robinson Crusoe living had advantages. Why not pick the best and skip the rest?

As I listened to the waves crashing outside my room, I imagined myself stranded on an island - just me and my TV. What shows would I need to survive? What programs could I live without?

I began packing my video bags.

Suppose my portable TV, which I would have taken with me on this voyage that left me shipwrecked, could pull in only one signal?

Life with one network. I shuddered. The idea of nothing but a cable network brought on a rush of monotonous ennui I knew would soon drive me into the sea.

The hard edge of a Cable News Network might make me happy to be isolated from society. And if rescue were years away, a steady diet of Lifetime would solve most of my emotional problems, only I'd be "the total woman" - not the complete man - by the time they found me.

American Movie Classics and Turner Network Television would be OK for a while, but I'm sure I'd eventually find myself reeling from all the unreality. The Disney Channel would make me loony tunes inside of a week, and if the only TV I could forage up on the island were something like the Home Shoppping Network, C-Span or the Financial News Network, I'd slip into a Rip Van Winkle dream.

It's possible, perhaps, that I'd find solace in music, but if I were watching MTV I'd certainly have a warped perception of reality. Twenty-four hours a day of The Comedy Channel would keep my spirits up, but I'm betting it would take on a Twilight Zone-ish, laugh-clown-laugh edge before long.

I'd rather have fate decide which Big 3 network - ABC, CBS or NBC - would be the best for a lifetime. I'd only be guessing, because just a few years ago, No. 1 NBC was the No. 3 network, and the prime-time stars being what they are, it's bound to be at the bottom of the barrel four or five years from now. These days I'd pick ABC just because I prefer Peter Jennings and the whole ABC News package and most of the prime-time programming.

Fox Broadcasting would be of little use because I'd be able to watch only three nights a week, and most of the shows would be spinoffs of one another (I don't even want to think about the havoc all those cop shows, real and imagined, would create in my brain).

So I guesss, if I had the choice, I'd have to program the network myself, which means I would have gotten off the ship with my VCR.

Then the question would be, which network or syndicated shows could I watch again and again and again?

NBC's "Cheers" came immediately to mind. Sam Malone and his "Cheers" crowd would be great company, a lot of laughs and - with the exception of Cliff and Diane - they wouldn't get on my nerves. Watching Norm suck down those brewskies might be a bit much, but I'd live.

So I wouldn't forget what business I used to be in, I'd bring along "Lou Grant." A mix of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and ""Murphy Brown" would be my emergency reserve.

For drama, I'd probably take along "St. Elsewhere" and "Magnum, P.I." and for escapist fare, "Dynasty."

For variety, I'd grab the best there ever was, "The Ed Sullivan Show."

I suppose I'd need at least a couple of hours a week of sports, so I'd hope to have a complete recording of ABC's coverage of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics around for inspiration (Exercise tapes, as my near-middle-age form proves, just aren't my style).

Finally, as I dozed off under the coconut trees, I'd let reruns of NBC's "Saaturday Night Live" send me blissfully out of reality's reach again.

But what if I couldnt find a power source or my set seized up with saltwater? I'd have solitude. I'd be able to think, to dream. Maybe I'd write that novel.

Or maybe I'd just go nuts.