Feeling crabby from too much work and a sore back, I’ve been taking refuge in a short YouTube video with extraordinary restorative powers. Although barely 16 seconds long—some versions are less than 10—the snippet carries me back to a time when something wonderful and exciting happened every hour on the hour, if not the half-hour.
It opens with a kaleidoscope of warm colors, suddenly twirling in a blur around the whitened silhouette of a bird with a tiny triangular crown atop its head. A lush, circular, woodwind score plays in the background and resolves just as the various blues and greens and reds and orange burst into focus as the plume of a … peacock! Meanwhile, a male voice—the unmistakable, silky voice of a New York network announcer—declares, “The following program is brought to you in living color, on NBC.”
The “Living Color” theme: still beckoning me nearly 50 years later. For a devout TV worshiper in the 1960s, it was my daily call to prayer. I must have watched it thousands, of times and it never failed to hold my attention for whatever followed.
Not only was it a thing of beauty on its own—that exotic melody of flutes, the hypnotic color wheel and dazzling finish—but it raised the curtain on a constant source of entertainment. I sat transfixed as the peacock faded to black and up popped the start of a new show: Get Smart, I Spy, Flipper, Star Trek, Dragnet, I Dream of Jeannie, Bonanza, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. I was just as thrilled when it unveiled a game show like Let’s Make a Deal or You Don’t Say. I was even willing to let the peacock lure me into icky territory like an Andy Williams Christmas Special or Hallmark Hall of Fame drama—well, for a few minutes anyway.
At first I thought my frequent viewings of this old broadcast remnant might be a little weird, until I noticed the long stream of YouTube comments posted by fellow time travelers. “I get goose bumps hearing this,” writes one viewer. “BRB, gotta go catch Hullabaloo!” adds another, while a woman named Hilary shares her vivid association: “We pause now for station identification.” One Matt S. writes: “I could watch this over & over again. Oh wait, I AM watching this over & over again.”
I learned some fun facts through my browsing. The peacock, originally introduced in 1956 in still frame, went animated a year later and was updated in 1962 for an NBC western called Laramie—with the bird’s quills fanning out in the version I remembered. The cosmopolitan voice-over belonged to a veteran NBC staff announcer named Mel Brandt—he also did GE College Bowl and soap operas, and briefly succeeded Don Pardo as the lead-in voice for Saturday Night Live. If you’re counting, the peacock had 11 feathers, though in the graphic style of the 1960s, they look like searchlights topped by a Christmas bulb. In one of many variations on YouTube, the peacock sneezes, blowing its feathers out of the picture—credit Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In for that trick.
NBC actually launched the bird not to promote its programs but as a marketing gimmick by corporate parent RCA to get consumers to purchase its color TVs. Just as I envied friends whose fathers drove cars with power windows and FM radios, I resented the fact that as late as 1965 I was still sentenced to watching Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in wonderless black-and-white. Back then, you could buy a tinted plastic sheet that affixed to your B&W screen and gave a pretense of color—I remember seeing one at an Italian restaurant our family frequented and couldn’t understand why Ricky and Lucy kept changing complexions. When my parents finally purchased a 24-inch RCA color set with stumpy legs, I barely left their bedroom, often sprawled on the floor much closer to the cathode screen than the recommended six-foot safety zone that reportedly protected your brain from rot.
And not only was there glorious color—there was something called “hue,” which created myriad possibilities for enhanced viewing. I was forever fiddling with the extra dial to get the infield grass the right shade of green during the baseball game, or to capture the deep blue of Mr. Spock’s shirt, though sometimes it was fun just to see what Walter Cronkite looked like with a purple face (does anyone ever touch the hue setting anymore?). Eventually we upgraded to a large Zenith console (with curved, French provincial legs), announcing to all that we’d finally arrived to a wonderful world of our own.
In fairness, I had strong attachments to the other networks, and each had its own telltale vibe. I could tell you instantly that Mannix, Mission Impossible, Hogan’s Heroes, Green Acres or The Wild, Wild West were all CBS shows, just as The Avengers, Bewitched, My Three Sons, Farmer’s Daughter, and Bat Man—who punched out garish villains with colorful, call-out captions that went “Pow” and “Kaboom”—were products of ABC. And the other networks – PBS included – had their own mini color lead-ins for each show, though they couldn’t compete with the peacock.
Eventually, just as Dean Martin and Johnny Carson grayed past their prime, the peacock lost its luster in an era where every show was in color. The bird was redesigned multiple times, looking splotchier, more bot-like and less dignified with every incarnation. It’s now just a static, little-used branding icon; the music was retired decades ago.
I’ve wondered whether my extreme attachment to the Living Color opener was the result of network brainwashing—the 1960s were notorious for subliminal messaging, such as “SEX” lurking in the ice cubes of an advertised glass of Cutty’s Scotch, or right-wing subtitles (“Trust the US Government”; “Obey God”) supposedly flashing on screen during a station’s nightly sign-off with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In some dark Jonathan Demme/John Frankenheimer world, my aging YouTube comrades and I are awaiting sinister Manchurian Candidate instructions delivered by the peacock. Perhaps that’s how NBC recently climbed back to the top of primetime ratings.
In fact, the peacock opener—like much of ‘60s TV—was captivating because we were captive to those who created the content. In that era, with only a handful of networks and local stations, no recording devices or ad zappers, and reruns limited to summer (when many of us were at camp far from our TVs), you didn’t have many second chances to get your fix. In a strange way, the viewing audience was itself “on demand,” waiting expectantly for the magic time slot when we could catch our favorite shows.
Today, with so many devices, channels, and time-warp technologies, it’s the content that’s on demand and we are the programmers. Observing my 15-year-old son Asher flick and flip from one entertaining distraction to the next on his phone or laptop, it’s clear he relishes having so much power over his viewing choices. But it’s also no wonder there’s not much wonder in his eyes. In a world of endlessly streaming content, there is little sense of anticipation. Or loyalty. Asher knows what numerical station his favorite shows are on but can’t easily identify which network broadcasts them, so accustomed is he to watching on DVR or his computer.
There’s a great scene in Louis Malle’s 1980 film Atlantic City, in which Burt Lancaster is schooling a shifty drug-runner (Robert Joy) on the good old days, when the resort town was filled with rackets, guns, and hookers. Even the sea itself was better. “The Atlantic Ocean was something then,” Lancaster’s character says as the two walk on the boardwalk, the waves breaking behind them. “Yeah, you should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”
I think I know how he feels. Even with an ocean of amazing content at my remote control command—documentary film channels, constant sports, current movies, the BBC, edgy dramatic series—I somehow never get motivated or find the time to catch any of it. Instead, if I want to see something really special, I just watch the peacock.