We all know the sixties were a significant decade in cultural history that changed our attitude towards things like civil rights, war and the government. This effected our art as well. But television was slow to acknowledge it. The decade after FCC chair Newton Minow criticized things like cartoons and violence and called television a vast wasteland was ironically TV’s weakest decade. I apologize to anyone who enjoys Gilligan’s Island but that kind of comedy doesn’t appeal to me. I prefer shows that make me think (although I loved that theme song).
Fortunately television executives eventually realized that the majority of baby boomers wanted television that spoke to them and not their parents, and ignoring boomers was costing the TV stations viewers. The culmination of this programming shift came in the early seventies, and sitcoms were the first to make waves thanks to writers like Norman Lear who created All in the Family.
In fact, sitcoms began earning a new level of critical, cultural and award-winning respect in the seventies. The Saturday night line-up of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show (followed by The Carol Burnett Show) on CBS alone was impressive. These shows were all culturally relevant, witty and able to be enjoyed by sophisticated audiences who previously rejected things like Gilligan, and they were all commercially successful as well. Never before had you seen sitcom characters argue about the Vietnam War like they did in All in the Family or seen an unmarried woman whose work life, rather than her home life, was her primary focus like in Mary Tyler Moore.
These comedies would be some of the most influential shows on television and you can see their influence in later shows like Cheers, Frasier, Scrubs, 30 Rock and more. But the seventies were overall not spectacular. Norman Lear opened the door for previously taboo subjects like politics and race but at the same time Garry Marshall was dominating television with innocuous comedies like Happy Days (a sort of anti-Norman Lear sitcom that longed for the fifties) as well as the spin-offs Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy.
As for the television drama, Aaron Spelling had similarly dominated that genre with an empire that included popular if average shows like Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. These dramas bore very little resemblance to the highly acclaimed TV dramas of the eighties like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting and Thirtysomething. The path to those shows, an era which many critics referred to as a golden age of dramas, can be traced back to several key factors.
First off, in a period of television when you could watch a show like The Brady Bunch in the middle of a season and not feel lost because the theme song was all the introduction you needed, daytime soap operas like As the World Turns and All My Children told a continuous story every weekday, rivaling novels in the level of detail and pure narrative length that can last decades. So audiences were used to serialized broadcasts since the days of radio. Although television miniseries from the seventies like Roots also helped prepare audiences for long-form series.
However, nothing popularized serialized storytelling more than the TV drama Dallas. This soap opera aired in prime time and would often have cliffhangers, including in season finales, with one year famously leaving viewers wondering “Who shot J.R.?” all summer long. This was such an effective marketing tool that it led to the Dallas spin-off Knots Landing and copycats like Dynasty and Falcon Crest. Even the sitcom Cheers was serialized in the way Sam and Diane’s romantic relationship developed.
Another contributing factor to the prestige dramas of the ’80s was that shows like Hill Street Blues came at a time when the three major networks NBC, CBS and ABC started facing competition from independent stations, basic cable, premium cable and even home video, which led to a steady decline in popularity for the big three. It also didn’t help that in 1971, the FCC passed a prime-time access rule which forbade networks from providing programming from 7pm to 8pm Monday through Saturday.
Television is always slow to change with the culture and for a long time, the big three ignored the threat of competitors, but the low ratings forced them to be more radical in order to compete with places like HBO. It was one of the few times when television executives aspired to critically acclaimed programs as much as commercially successful ones. Hill Street Blues felt more like a movie than a TV show, which was one of the most outstanding elements of the quality TV in this period. It did not feel like television.
Other shows that made critics call the eighties a golden age include St. Elsewhere, Cagney & Lacey, Moonlighting, L.A. Law, Thirtysomething and China Beach. All great dramas that were unlike anything on television from previous decades.
Networks like NBC even began emphasizing the quality of their programming in promos that advertised themselves as “The best night of television on television.” Ordinarily the broadcast networks could get by on offering passable entertainment because there weren’t a lot of viewing options, but that was before ESPN targeted sports fans, MTV targeted music fans, Comedy Central targeted comedy fans and Nickelodeon targeted kids. Not to mention HBO which was more appealing to rich and educated viewers and fellow broadcast network FOX which would soon target Black viewers with shows like Arsenio Hall and In Living Color. The widespread migration of TV viewers forced the big three to step up their game. And the fact that NBC was in third place in the early eighties made them less afraid to gamble on innovative police dramas like Hill Street Blues and medical dramas like St. Elsewhere, which would ultimately propel them to first place. ABC would experience a similar ratings bump when they started adding romantic mystery series Moonlighting, mundane baby boomer drama Thirtysomething and the surreal mystery drama Twin Peaks.
After the nineties, you started seeing quality TV on the regular, to the point where you rarely had to settle for passable entertainment ever again. The Simpsons and Seinfeld were consistently entertaining and they were on all throughout the nineties. And this only exploded further in the following years with the amount of great comedies and dramas on HBO, Showtime, FX, Comedy Central and AMC as well as streaming services like Prime Video, Netflix and Hulu, and this shows no signs of slowing down. But it wouldn’t be that way without the radical sitcoms of the seventies, the realistic dramas of the eighties and the massive amount of viewing options in the latter half of the century that helped push all networks into more adventurous territory, thus providing us with more quality TV than any other time in history.
By the way, I don’t care what Newton Minow says. Violent cartoons were some of my favorite things on television growing up.