By Bob Andelman
May 23, 1990
Aside from the 1,000 videocassettes overflowing three closets and the garage, the Yogi Bear “pic-a-nic” basket, Barry Manilow shoestrings, Cheryl Ladd statuette, Godzilla clock, autographed cassette of songs by Knight Rider and Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action toys, a xylophone that only plays the NBC-TV tones, and a variety of couch potato dolls sent by loyal readers, Walt Belcher’s house in Seffner is just like yours or mine.
What’s different is Belcher. The 43-year-old, soft-spoken teddy bear of a man gets paid to watch TV for the Tampa Tribune and write about it six times a week. His living room is his office, focused on an unspectacular 19″ RCA set fit into a near-wood home entertainment center. Above it is a 54-channel Paragon Cable tuner and a Montgomery Ward VCR. There is another TV used only for Nintendo games, a little-used, 13″ set in the family room and a 4″ TV in the family van.
“I have been places where I have to watch TV so I go out to to the car and watch it,” explains Belcher. “My wife hates that – she says TV is ruining our lives.”
Deborah Belcher, a kindergarten teacher at Lewis Roland Elementary School in Tampa, has been married to Walt for 19 years. They have two children, Allen, 12, and Brent, 8. Deborah prefers reading to watching TV.
“She’s got very good taste,” says Walt.
“Our tastes differ markedly,” says Deborah, ever-so-diplomatically. She often reads the books made-for-TV movies-of-the-week and mini-series are taken from, then scans the videos to let Walt know what may be different from the original.
His boys share Belcher’s affection for sitcoms, cartoonish characters and action. “We can predict car crashes on the A-Team,” brags pere Belcher. “Any car made before ’78 is going to be torched.”
The Belchers do not own any stereo video gadgets. There’s no satellite dish in the backyard, either.
A video camera has found its way into the Belcher home. “I’ve filmed the children,” says Belcher. “Y’know what I’ve learned? Nothing longer than 30 seconds. Or it becomes boring. So I take snippets of things. I’m trying to figure out dubbing on this thing so I can add music to my home videos. Because the (natural) sound is boring.” Another Belcher tip: edit home Christmas videos down to two minutes, family reunions to three. Nobody wants to watch more than that anyway.
The Belcher Family went without premium channels for a time this past year; Walt relented during a free Disney Channel preview weekend and signed up for MouseTV. If any of the others have something new to offer, he gets an advance copy on videocassette for review purposes. This can have its advantages – and drawbacks.
“I get ’em without commercials,” says the grateful critic. “I also get them without effects. There was one with a man and woman in bed and the phone was supposed to ring. In the background you heard a guy saying, ‘Ring!'”
In general, Belcher prefers comedies to dramas, the old Star Trek to the new, and the Tribune‘s Sunday television magazine to TV Guide. He misses Max Headroom, Amazing Stories, Police Squad! and Sledge Hammer. Don’t even ask about Knots Landing, Hunter, 227 or thirtysomething. “I remember a year I didn’t watch anything on ABC,” he says. Current must-watch shows include Twin Peaks and The Simpsons, sometimes Murphy Brown.
Belcher – who does his job from the comfort of a navy blue rocker-recliner – is a whiz with the remote control. He watches TV the way most of us do, zapping programs at the first signs of lag, flipping around the dial, making critical programming decisions in the blink of the CBS eye.
When he’s into the fall preview season, Belcher can dissect a sitcom or dramedy premise, pinpoint the show’s derivative roots and reject it within minutes. In a life devoted to 30- and 60-minute blocks, you learn to make your mind up fast and know when to move on. When you watch this much TV, you’re entitled to be finicky.
Most of the shows Belcher screens are viewed at home. “I like to bounce it off the family,” he says. “Some things the kids will like that I think are awful. They’re more easily pleased. This is how everybody else sees TV. You watch TV with one eye. You get up, you eat, wrestle with the kids. People talk during TV.”
The Tribune does keep a large color TV and VCR on hand for him to do deadline reviews and commentary at the office.
“The majority of the time I’m talking to people about their shows or guys in bars wondering, ‘What was the name of the ship in Gilligan’s Island ?’ They always want me to settle their bets,” he says.
As any regular Belcher reader knows, local news is the bane of his existence. He often races home from the Trib to catch the five o’clock news shows. He can’t stand them, but he can’t resist them, either.
“Local news is the burden of my job; it’s the curse,” begins his familiar diatribe. “I can never relax. I’m always thinking: Is this something I should write about? Every time I watch, I see something funny. Ever notice the fake interview technique where the anchor turns around and asks one more question at the end of a report? Are they scripted? Does it catch the reporter off-guard? Does it establish the anchor as intelligent? I get a laugh out of that stuff.”