Prime Time Network Programming, 1940s–1970s

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Prime Time Network Programming, 1940s–1970s

From the beginning of commercial television in the 1940s, the broadcast networks have competed to produce programs that attract the largest number of viewers. Successful programs bring in advertising dollars, which allow the networks to remain in business and create more programs. The competition for viewers has always been particularly intense during "prime time," the evening hours—roughly between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.—when American families have come home from work or school and are most likely to watch TV.

In order to attract viewers during this important period, the networks produced more than 5,000 prime-time series in the first fifty years of television. These programs ranged from serious dramas to silly comedies; from cowboy stories set in the Old West to futuristic adventures set in outer space; and from live music and variety shows to animated cartoon series. Many of these programs reflected current events and developments in American society, while others helped launch new cultural trends.

Through the years, television networks have often come under criticism for creating programs with the single goal of attracting mass audiences. Some critics claim that the networks often pay more attention to attracting wide audiences than to creating excellent programs. But some analysts of popular culture argue that television also has a number of positive effects on society. At its best, TV brings people together, gives them something to talk about, and makes them think about issues or relationships in a new way. "In such a diverse country as the United States, television has supplied everyone with common reference points and a shared culture," Steven D. Stark explained in Glued to the Set.

In any case, there is no disputing that television—and particularly prime-time network series—exerts a tremendous influence on American society. For instance, TV series encourages people to spend money on toys, clothing, and other products. Television news programs give viewers a close-up look at historic events taking place all over the world. Television coverage of politics influences the types of people who run for office, as well as the ways in which they appeal to voters. Finally, spending time watching television—instead of pursuing other activities like reading, exercising, or talking with other people—affects viewers' personal health and family life.

The 1940s: Americans gather around the TV

Television first became widely available in the United States in the late 1940s. Although the first television broadcasts had taken place years earlier, both the production of TV sets and TV broadcasting were stopped during World War II (1939–45). Once the war ended, however, the modern television industry began to take shape. In the 1940s, only 10 percent of American homes contained TV sets, so the new technology was quite a novelty. Since the networks only broadcast shows for a few hours in the evening, watching TV was a form of entertainment that people often shared with their friends and neighbors.

The earliest TV programs were filmed live in network studios in New York City. Most of the shows featured the same forms of entertainment that were popular before television came along. Playwrights and actors who had become famous through their work in the theater began staging dramas for TV. Radio comedies and adventure stories were also adapted for television. But perhaps the most popular early TV programs were variety shows—featuring comedy, music, dancing, and skits—based on the work of successful vaudeville entertainers. Vaudeville was a form of live entertainment featuring multiple acts that flourished around the turn of the twentieth century.

During the first few years of television, the most popular shows tended to take advantage of the visual element of television, or the fact that people could see performers instead of just hearing them on the radio. One prominent example was a variety show called Texaco Star Theater, which was hosted by Milton Berle (1908–2002) and ran on NBC from 1948 to 1953. Berle started out as a vaudeville comic, and he brought many aspects of his routine to his TV show. He wore ridiculous costumes, told bad jokes, and appeared with trained animals and jugglers. But he also managed to convince some of the biggest names in show business, such as the popular singer Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), to make guest appearances on his program.

TV Ratings

Television programs are rated based on the number of viewers who watch them. These ratings are used to determine the most popular shows for a particular week or year. Ratings are very important to the television networks. The more viewers that tune in to a given show, the more money the network can charge advertisers for commercials aired during that show. Advertising dollars provide a major source of funding for the networks, allowing them to stay in business and continue producing programs. For this reason, the networks use ratings to decide which shows to keep and which to cancel for each TV season. It is important to note that ratings do not measure the quality of TV programs. Instead, they measure the popularity of TV programs, or how many viewers watch them.

In the United States, national television ratings are compiled by a company called Nielsen Media Research. Since more than 110 million American homes have TV sets, Nielsen cannot possibly keep track of what everyone is watching at a particular time. Instead, the company uses a mathematical technique called statistical sampling to analyze the nation's viewing patterns.

Nielsen randomly selects about 5,000 American homes—containing about 13,000 individual viewers—to serve as a sample audience. In order to create a sample that is representative of the whole country, the company chooses homes in diverse geographic locations with viewers from various ethnic backgrounds and income levels. With the agreement of the homeowners, Nielsen installs special meters on the TV sets in these 5,000 homes. Whenever a TV set is turned on, the meter records which channel the viewer is watching. This data is collected and studied by the company's central computers every night.

Statistics, or numerical information, from the sample audience are used to estimate the total number of viewers that tune in to each program across the country. One point in the Nielsen ratings is equivalent to 1 percent of the national television households. Since there were about 110 million TV households in 2005, each ratings point represented 1.1 million households. For example, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was the top-rated program for the last week of December 2005. It received a rating of 11.3, meaning that it was watched in 12.4 million U.S. households. Nielsen also reports its results in terms of audience share, or the percentage of all televisions in use at a particular time that were tuned to a specific program. CSI received an 18 share, meaning that the show is estimated to have appeared on 18 percent of all TV sets in the country at the time of its broadcast.

Nielsen also keeps track of statistics about various segments of the viewing audience. For example, the company finds out the age and gender of each member in its sample households. These individuals are asked to push a special button whenever they start or stop watching TV. Nielsen can use this data to determine which shows are the most popular among specific population groups, such as children or female viewers. The company collects and publicizes the most data about the nation's viewing habits during "sweeps" periods. These important ratings periods, which occur in February, May, and November each year, are when local TV stations establish their advertising rates. Accordingly, the networks typically choose these periods to air programs they expect to attract the largest audiences.

Within a year of its debut, Berle's Texaco Star Theater became a huge hit, attracting 75 percent of all TV audiences each week. In fact, the show was so popular that NBC delayed broadcasting the results of the 1948 presidential election until Berle's show went off the air. Berle thus emerged as the first superstar of the TV age and became popularly known as "Mr. Television."

The other networks soon introduced variety shows that imitated Texaco Star Theater. But Berle's popularity faded fairly quickly, and his show was canceled in 1953 after a five-year run. Television historians claim that Berle's brand of humor worked best in the era when groups of people gathered together to watch television. Once every family had a TV set that they could watch in the quiet of their own homes, his outrageous costumes and gags lost their appeal. In this new atmosphere, television programming of the 1950s became dominated by milder situation comedies, often focusing on family life.

The 1950s: Family hour

For most Americans, the 1950s was a very good decade. The U.S. economy was strong, creating an abundance of steady jobs that paid well. As a result, many people were able to buy homes and start families, creating a comfortable middle class. The situation was not as promising for African Americans, who were forced to use separate—and usually lesser quality—schools, transportation, and other public facilities during this era of segregation (the forced separation of people by race). Conflict began internationally, too, as the United States and the Soviet Union started competing to see which country would prove to be the dominant power in the post-World War II era. Nevertheless, many Americans in the 1950s seemed to feel positive about the future.

Television ownership expanded rapidly during the 1950s, from about 10 percent of U.S. households in 1950 to 86 percent in 1959. The networks gradually established regular broadcast schedules and made programming available for more hours each day. They also developed different types of programs—including situation comedies, adventure series, and game shows—to appeal to different parts of the viewing audience.

Situation comedies take shape

Probably the most popular type of program in the 1950s was the situation comedy, or sitcom. Most of these shows focused humorously on families and their everyday problems. Unlike Texaco Star Theater and other programs from the 1940s, many sitcoms from the 1950s remain popular into the early 2000s. Reruns, or repeat showings, of these programs attract new generations of audiences who enjoy the depictions of family life in an earlier, seemingly simpler time.

I Love Lucy

Arguably the most successful television program of all time is the pioneering sitcom I Love Lucy, which aired on CBS from 1951 to 1957. It starred Lucille Ball (1911–1989), a well-known comedian and movie actress, and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz (1917–1986), a singer and bandleader from Cuba. They played a married couple, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, who live in a New York apartment and are best friends with their older neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz.

When the network first approached Lucille Ball about appearing in a television series, she agreed—but only on the conditions that her husband would be her co-star and that the show would be filmed in Hollywood, California, rather than New York. Ball and Arnaz also introduced several technical innovations during the show's production. For instance, I Love Lucy was the first television program to be filmed live before a studio audience, and it was the first to use a three-camera technique that allowed the actors to play to the audience rather than to the cameras.

In addition to the differences in filming location and style, I Love Lucy introduced some new ideas to early TV audiences. Lucy Ricardo is a housewife and stay-at-home mother (like most married women in the 1950s), but she repeatedly tries to become more independent and add some excitement to her life. "Long before Betty Freidan [author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), an influential book in the women's rights movement] gave voice to the restless aspirations of a generation of housebound women, 'I Love Lucy' was doing something similar," Stark noted. Lucy's weekly struggles to launch her own career or make Ricky appreciate her were treated humorously, which made the show's underlying feminism, or focus on women's desire for equality with men, less threatening to audiences of the 1950s.

Thanks to the unique comic talents of its star, I Love Lucy became a huge hit. Reruns have aired in the United States and around the world ever since the series ended, and as of 2006 it is still considered a classic example of the sitcom format.

Leave It to Beaver

Another 1950s sitcom with enduring popularity was Leave It to Beaver, which aired on CBS and ABC from 1957 to 1963. It followed the day-to-day activities of a middle-class white American family. The Cleavers live in a tidy house in the suburbs. Father Ward goes off to work each day, briefcase in hand, while mother June takes care of the house in her apron, pearls, and high heels. Most of the stories focus on the youngest son, Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver. Each week, Beaver faces the typical problems of childhood with the loving support of his parents and his older brother, Wally.

Leave It to Beaver was not a big success during its initial run. Some critics believe that it had limited appeal to 1950s audiences because adults were unaccustomed to shows that presented family life from a child's perspective. As American society changed over time, however, Leave It to Beaver became a huge hit. People who felt overwhelmed by modern problems took comfort in watching reruns of the show, because it portrayed an ideal family with two children cared for by both of their parents. "Leave It to Beaver—the sitcom that glorified the traditional, father-led, middle-class family of the 1950s—only began to gain mass popularity as that family model, and the era it represented, disappeared and the nation longed for both it and the stability it represented," Stark explained.

Leave It to Beaver remains popular in the 2000s. Some historians place the show at the beginning of a nostalgia movement, in which Americans are attracted to comforting images of a simpler time in the past. They claim that such feelings of longing for the past also explains the popularity of "oldies" and "classic rock" radio stations, which play songs from earlier decades, as well as the trend of turning old TV shows into movies.

Music rocks TV

While sitcoms became a major part of television programming in the 1950s, music and variety shows remained popular, too. The program that produced some of America's most memorable television moments was The Ed Sullivan Show, which aired more than one thousand episodes on CBS between 1948 and 1971. As host of the show, Ed Sullivan (1902–1974) had a permanent place on television for over twenty years. Although he had a somewhat wooden presence on stage—and mostly stood around with his hands in his pockets—Sullivan had a knack for recognizing talent. He invited many young artists on his show who went on to rank among the biggest names in American music. In this way, The Ed Sullivan Show had a major influence on popular culture.

Entertainers such as Bob Hope (1903–2003), Itzhak Perlman (1945–), and Liza Minnelli (1946–) made their first appearance on television on the program. Sullivan also featured a number of African American entertainers—such as Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), Lena Horne (1917–), and Richard Pryor (1940–2005)—at a time when it was rare for black performers to appear on TV. Sullivan is probably best known, however, for scheduling some of the earliest television performances by the young Elvis Presley (1935–1977), who became a tremendously popular rock-and-roll singer.

About 60 million people, or 82 percent of the total American viewing audience, tuned in to watch Elvis's first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in September 1956. Some of the more conservative viewers were shocked at the rock-and-roller's suggestive dance moves, which included hip shakes and pelvic thrusts. When Elvis returned to the show in January 1957, Sullivan famously instructed his camera operators to only film the singer from the waist up. Seven years later, 70 million people tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show to watch the American television debut, or first appearance, of a young British rock group called the Beatles.

Shortly after Elvis made his historic appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the other networks launched their own programs to try to take advantage of the growing interest in rock-and-roll music. The most successful of these programs was American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark (1929–), which aired on ABC for thirty years beginning in 1957. Bandstand started out as a daytime show on a local TV station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but soon went national and moved into prime time. Although the featured bands played before a live audience, they often used recorded background tracks. The show also featured a regular cast of dancers and a segment in which audience members rated new records.

Over the years, American Bandstand often drew criticism for emphasizing music that was too commercial and mainstream. But some people gave the show credit for bridging the generation gap by presenting music that appealed to teenagers without putting off adults. Bandstand was particularly popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its influence began to fade in the mid-1960s, when rock-and-roll took on more aggressive, protest themes that criticized the middle-class American lifestyle and lost the more romantic sound of much 1950s music.

Another hugely successful music program from the 1950s was The Lawrence Welk Show, which aired on ABC from 1955 to 1971. Lawrence Welk (1903–1992) was a North Dakota-born musician and bandleader who favored polkas over rock-and-roll. In contrast to Sullivan, Welk never tried to follow trends in American music. Instead, he gained a devoted following among older audiences by providing comfortable, familiar, wholesome entertainment.

Westerns ride into town

In terms of television drama, the 1950s is considered the age of the Western. Stories about cowboys and lawmen, such as The Lone Ranger, had been popular on radio and in the movies for many years. The genre, or type of program, started to take over television in the mid-1950s, when the United States and the Soviet Union entered a period of intense political and military rivalry known as the Cold War (1945–91). Westerns held appeal for TV viewers during this period because they emphasized traditional American values and offered a clear contrast between the good guys and the bad guys.

Gunsmoke, which aired on CBS from 1955 to 1975, is widely considered to be the original TV Western. It reached the number one spot in the annual television ratings for four years in a row, and it remained in the top ten for a total of twelve years. Its success in the 1950s created a trend in which many other Westerns were shown on television, including Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Maverick, Rawhide, and The Big Valley.

Gunsmoke starred James Arness (1923–) as Matt Dillon, the sheriff of the frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas. Each week, Dillon protected the townspeople from harm and helped them solve problems. The basic message of the show was that the forces of good always win out over the forces of evil. Gunsmoke and the other early TV Westerns did not have much violence by the standards of the 2000s, but they did provide viewers with excitement and adventure.

Another tremendously popular Western, Bonanza, made its debut on NBC in 1959 and ran until 1973. It was different from Gunsmoke in two ways: it showed a family instead of a lone lawman; and it took place on a sprawling private ranch instead of in a frontier town. Bonanza focused on Ben Cartwright (played by Lorne Greene [1915–1987]), who operated a cattle ranch with the help of his three sons. Although the show reached the top spot in the annual ratings three times in the early 1960s, Westerns began to go out of style around this time. Some TV critics attribute the decline of the genre to the fact that there were too many Westerns on TV, while others claim that the cultural changes of the 1960s (including the African American civil rights movement and the women's rights movement) made Westerns seem old-fashioned, simplistic, and out of touch with the real world.

The quiz show scandal

Another television genre that became popular during the 1950s was the quiz show. During the mid-1950s, quiz shows were the most popular programs on prime-time TV. In fact, quiz shows occupied five of the top ten spots in the TV ratings for the 1957 season. Competing successfully on such programs as Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question turned ordinary Americans into instant celebrities. These question-and-answer shows rewarded well-informed, quick-thinking contestants with prizes and money.

The appeal of quiz shows started to fade in 1957, however, when rumors suggested that some of the programs were fixed to turn out a certain way. In some cases, popular contestants were allowed to win so that the program would receive higher ratings. Accusations by former contestants led to a formal investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives. Viewers tuned in to watch a parade of successful quiz show contestants testify before Congress about their television experiences. The biggest shock came when Twenty-One champion Charles Van Doren, the handsome son of a prominent family, admitted that the show's producers had provided him with answers in advance. Even though it was not illegal to fix game shows at that time, the nation's TV viewers were angry about what Van Doren reported. The networks responded by canceling most of the quiz shows.

The quiz show scandal affected the development of television in a number of ways. First, it led the broadcast networks to take control over programming. Before the scandal occurred, the networks had sold large blocks of air time to commercial sponsors. As part of a larger effort to promote their products, these companies had created the programs that the networks aired. But the scandal convinced the networks that this system did not work well and that they needed to take more control over program content. After 1957, the networks took charge of producing programs and began selling only brief commercial spots to advertisers. Second, the networks created formal news divisions in order to make a clear distinction between news and entertainment programs.

The quiz show scandal also affected American viewers' attitudes toward television. The scandal occurred in the 1950s, when most U.S. citizens, due to the prosperous post-World War II times, felt confident and optimistic and tended to trust the media. But the scandal reduced this level of trust and caused many Americans to question the honesty of television producers.

The 1960s: TV becomes an escape

The 1960s was a decade of great change and instability in the United States. African Americans fought for equality through the civil rights movement. Cold War tensions increased between the United States and Soviet Union, leading to widespread public concerns about Communist expansion and spying. The U.S. military began fighting a controversial war in the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam, and antiwar protests rocked the nation. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) were assassinated, and American astronaut Neil Armstrong (1930–) became the first person to set foot on the Moon.

Television news became increasingly sophisticated in the 1960s and provided extensive coverage of these important events. But most prime-time TV series did not address the serious issues facing American society that revolved around these and other events. Network executives were fearful of offending viewers, which could mean a drop in viewership and thus a drop in advertising dollars, by commenting on these issues. Instead, they took the opposite approach with entertainment programming, offering viewers an assortment of goofy comedies and lighthearted adventures. Many American audiences enjoyed the distraction this sort of programming offered.

One of the most popular programs of the decade, The Beverly Hillbillies, aired on CBS from 1962 to 1971. TV critics called the show tasteless and silly, but large numbers of viewers tuned in anyway. In fact, The Beverly Hillbillies rose to the top spot in the ratings within three weeks of its premiere, and it stayed there for two years. Even after the series ended its initial run, it remained popular in reruns.

The Beverly Hillbillies follows the comic adventures of the Clampetts, an unsophisticated family from the backwoods who unexpectedly strike oil on their property. They become instant millionaires and decide to buy a mansion in upscale Beverly Hills, California. Each episode contrasts the Clampett family's rural values with the shallow materialism of their wealthy neighbors.

The Beverly Hillbillies was one of the first TV comedies to deal with the subject of social class. It also launched the "fish out of water" type of sitcom storyline, in which the main characters are surrounded by, and must interact with, people who are very different from themselves. This type of storyline was used in later years by such programs as Mork and Mindy (featuring Robin Williams [1951–] as an alien), Family Ties (starring Michael J. Fox [1961–] as the sole conservative in a liberal family), and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (featuring Will Smith [1968–] as an urban rapper in an upper-class suburban neighborhood).

In addition to The Beverly Hillbillies, viewers in the 1960s enjoyed Mister Ed (about a talking horse); Gilligan's Island (about a group of misfits shipwrecked on a deserted island); and The Munsters and The Addams Family (about families of monsters living in suburban America). A few of these comedies reflected the changes taking place in U.S. society. But instead of referring to controversial subjects directly, they usually disguised the references in comic situations. "These sitcoms reflected their times more than it might at first seem," Stark wrote. "By packaging troubling cultural shifts in the guise [outward appearance] of comic fantasy, these shows made it easier for Americans to come to grips with rapid social change."

The sitcom My Favorite Martian, for example, was about a family trying to accept their strange uncle, who turned out to be a visitor from another planet. But some TV critics noted that the series suggested the civil rights struggle, when Americans of different races made new efforts to understand and accept each other. Similarly, the popular sitcoms Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie featured female characters (a witch and a genie) who had magical powers. Some TV critics claimed that these series reflected the growing women's rights movement and helped prepare American society to accept greater empowerment of women.

Of course, not all sitcoms of the 1960s were strange, escapist comedies. In fact, two of the best shows of the era painted more realistic portraits of life in America at that time. The Dick Van Dyke Show, which appeared on CBS for five years beginning in 1961, captured the everyday experiences of America's growing middle class. Actor Dick Van Dyke (1925–) starred as Rob Petrie, a successful television writer. Mary Tyler Moore (1936–) played his wife, Laura, who stayed home to take care of their son Ritchie but did not always fit into the traditional housewife role. The show is not only about the relationship between Rob and Laura, but also about the relationship between Rob and his co-workers. The series creator, Carl Reiner (1922–), described it to Stark as "the first situation comedy where you saw where the man worked before he walked in and said, 'Hi, honey, I'm home!'" The well-written Dick Van Dyke Show won more than a dozen Emmy Awards. (Emmy Awards are given out annually by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for excellence in TV programming.)

Another popular sitcom of the era, The Andy Griffith Show, provided viewers with a sweet and funny chronicle of life in a small southern town. Andy Griffith's (1926–) character, Andy Taylor, is the easygoing, fair-minded sheriff of rural Mayberry, North Carolina. He is also a single father raising a young son, Opie, with the help of his elderly aunt. While the show had some silly characters and outrageous moments, its comfortable, down-home style made it seem more realistic than many other sitcoms. Originally airing on CBS from 1960 to 1968, it remains popular in reruns and is still mentioned among the best shows in its genre.

Dramas reflect the Cold War era

As the Western gradually lost its dominant place in prime-time TV schedules, the networks introduced several new kinds of drama series. Many dramas of the 1960s reflected the feelings of paranoia and suspicion that gripped the United States during the Cold War. One of the most original series from this era was The Twilight Zone, which aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964. Created and hosted by playwright Rod Serling (1924–1975), this science-fiction show was so different from anything else on television that it failed to attract a large audience during its first run. In later years, however, The Twilight Zone developed a strong following in reruns and played an influential role in American popular culture.

Each episode of The Twilight Zone opened with Serling, dressed in a suit and tie, introducing the story to viewers. Other than that, however, no two episodes were alike or connected. Instead, each episode was a self-contained story that featured new characters and settings. In many cases, the situations appeared to be ordinary at first, but then turned strange or even frightening. Every episode ended with a surprising twist that was intended to make viewers rethink everything they had just seen.

In creating the show, Serling chose to include a science-fiction element because he felt that it gave him more freedom to comment on politics and current events. "The Twilight Zone presented an alternate universe which, as fantastic as it was, ultimately proved more authentic [real] than almost anything else [on TV]," Stark explained. Still, because the show touched on controversial issues, Serling continually battled with network executives and commercial sponsors, who were concerned about offending viewers.

As Cold War tensions escalated between the United States and Soviet Union, the news often contained stories about Communist expansion and international spies. The broadcast networks tried to take advantage of such concerns by introducing more than a dozen spy dramas during the 1960s, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and The Avengers. One of the most original shows in this genre was Mission: Impossible, which aired on CBS from 1966 to 1973. It focused on a team of American secret agents led by Jim Phelps (played by Peter Graves [1926–]). Each week, the team received a tape-recorded message that informed members of their assignment, and then the tape would destroy itself.

Some TV critics argue that the 1960s spy dramas gave Americans a negative view of foreign countries and thus contributed to the fearful atmosphere that made the Cold War possible. Some also charged that these series led to an increase in the level of violence shown on television. Since many Americans worried about enemy spies, they seemed to find violence toward such characters more acceptable on TV shows. Other analysts attributed the rising levels of violence on some TV dramas to the violent Vietnam War imagery being broadcast into American homes each night via the evening news programs.

Police shows and legal dramas also replaced the Western in the 1960s. Perry Mason, which aired on CBS from 1957 to 1966, was the first show to present a lawyer as a hero. The title character (played by Raymond Burr [1917–1993]) was a brilliant defense attorney who always managed to uncover new evidence and find the real criminal so that his innocent clients could go free. Each episode featured a dramatic courtroom confrontation, in which Mason always prevailed. Some analysts of popular culture point out that Perry Mason and other legal dramas helped turn average Americans into amateur crime solvers. But while it taught viewers about some aspects of the criminal justice system, Perry Mason also gave viewers the misleading impression that most cases were neatly resolved.

Game and variety shows reflect changing times

New types of game and variety shows also reflected the cultural shifts and political controversies of the 1960s. As women began to break out of traditional roles and seek more sexual freedom, the most popular game shows began to focus on personal relationships rather than intellectual ability. In the hit show The Dating Game, for instance, an attractive single woman would interview three unseen male contestants and then decide which one she wanted to go out with. The question-and-answer sessions were often filled with sexual jokes and suggestions. Similarly, The Newlywed Game featured four recently married couples. The men and women would answer questions separately while their spouses waited backstage. When the couples were reunited to discuss their answers, they often revealed a great deal about their private lives, to the amusement of the viewing audience.

Both of these shows broke new ground on television by openly acknowledging sexuality. In contrast, most programs of the 1950s never talked about sex. They did not even show married characters getting into the same bed to sleep. Instead, a wife and husband usually slept in separate beds. The new wave of game shows also started a trend toward allowing contestants to humiliate or embarrass themselves on TV for the entertainment of the audience. The entertainment value of The Dating Game came from watching the woman's reaction—usually surprise or disappointment—as she met the man she had chosen to date. Likewise, viewers tuned in to The Newlywed Game mostly to watch the couples argue about their conflicting answers. In this way, the 1960s game shows were forerunners of later daytime tabloid talk shows such as Jerry Springer in the 1990s and prime-time reality series such as The Bachelor in the 2000s.

The 1960s also saw the return of comedy and variety shows to the prime-time lineup. All of these shows included some topical humor about political subjects and current events, but some handled controversial topics more carefully than others. The program that addressed such issues most directly was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which premiered on CBS in 1967.

Comedians Tom (1937–) and Dick (1939–) Smothers felt that the television networks were far too cautious about dealing with important subjects, such as American involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75). They were determined to make their variety show reflect current public concerns and changing values. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour included mock political commentary, jokes and skits about current events, and performances by popular rock and folk artists. CBS executives worried that the brothers would go too far and anger or upset audiences and advertisers. In 1968 they demanded to see a videotape of the program each week before it went on the air, and in 1969 they canceled the show due to ongoing differences of opinion about its content.

Other variety shows of the period, including The Carol Burnett Show (1967–79) and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (1968–73), were more careful about covering their political commentary with humor. They thus managed to find a comfortable middle ground with viewers and advertising sponsors.

The 1970s: Serious comedy

During the 1970s, people in the United States witnessed social change in the form of the women's liberation movement, which encouraged American women to seek greater independence and freedom. As a result, women tended to remain single longer, and more married women began working outside the home. In the workplace, women demanded to be paid the same as men who did similar work. Divorce became more common, and a growing number of children found themselves living in non-traditional families. A family no longer consisted of two parents who were married, along with the children produced by that marriage.

The 1970s also saw political upheaval because the U.S. president was caught up in criminal activity. In the early part of the decade, Republican president Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) became involved in what was called Watergate scandal. It was named after the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., where burglars with ties to the Republican Party broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee. The crime led to an investigation that showed that White House officials, including President Nixon, knew about the break-in. In 1974 the Watergate investigations revealed convincing evidence against the president, and Nixon decided to resign in order to avoid impeachment, or prosecution. Nixon was the first U.S. president forced to resign from office. His disgrace led to widespread feelings of disillusionment and distrust about the government and other institutions.

In the meantime, people across the country continued to protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Some young people who adopted the cause of peace developed their own culture and became known as "hippies." Thanks in part to public disapproval, the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973. Three years later, the United States watched as North Vietnamese Communist forces defeated its South Vietnamese allies to take control of the battered Southeast Asian nation.

In the face of so much change and conflict, it is little wonder that sitcoms took over prime-time television in the 1970s. The viewing audience's preference for comedy lasted for the next twenty years, and only two dramas (Dallas and Dynasty) led the annual TV ratings between 1972 and 1995. Unlike the escapist comedies of the 1960s, however, the most popular and influential shows of the 1970s tended to present more realistic pictures of American working people and families. Many of them also featured a darker brand of humor that seemed to fit the troubled times.

The struggles of working people

One of the most critically acclaimed sitcoms of the era was All in the Family. It aired on CBS from 1971 to 1983 and was the top-rated show on television for five consecutive years. All in the Family broke new ground by focusing on the daily struggles of a working-class family, living in Queens, New York. Carroll O'Connor (1924–2001) starred as Archie Bunker, a loud, prejudiced, blue-collar worker who distrusted blacks, Jews, feminists, hippies, and other perceived threats to conservative American values. Archie shared a modest home with his gentle wife Edith, liberated adult daughter Gloria, and long-haired hippie and often unemployed son-in-law Mike Stivic. Their interactions consisted mainly of heated arguments, name-calling, and sarcastic comments. Much of the humor came from the difference between Archie's beliefs and actions and those of the other main characters.

CBS executives knew that some viewers might be shocked by All in the Family. Immediately before the series premiere, the network aired a message explaining that the show "seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are." CBS also set up a special telephone switchboard to field calls from viewers who found the program upsetting. As it turned out, though, the few people who called in offered mostly positive comments.

All in the Family influenced the development of TV comedy in a number of ways. First, it started a trend toward more realistic sitcoms that tackled a broader range of social and political subjects. For instance, the show addressed the so-called generation gap between older, more conservative people like Archie and younger, more liberal people like Mike. The arguments between the two characters probably reflected those taking place in many American homes at that time. Second, All in the Family focused on wordplay and verbal battles more than previous sitcoms. Many later TV shows adopted this approach, from sitcoms such as Seinfeld to news programs such as Crossfire.

Finally, All in the Family was one of the first programs to generate successful "spin-off" series with members of its cast. (Spin-off series are new programs built around a character that has appeared on another TV series.) Creator Norman Lear (1922–) built several new shows around characters from All in the Family, including Maude and The Jeffersons. Analysts of popular culture claim that spin-offs help viewers forge a closer connection to television, because they are able to watch familiar characters adjust to new situations and grow.

Another highly successful and influential sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, aired on CBS at the same time as All in the Family. Although both shows were realistic and dealt with social changes, in many ways they were complete opposites. The Mary Tyler Moore Show focused on a single career woman rather than a family, for instance, and emphasized the importance of getting along rather than confrontation. Like All in the Family, though, it did generate a number of successful spin-off series featuring supporting characters, including Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show centered on Mary Richards, a single woman who worked as a news writer at a local TV station in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It struck a chord at a time when American women were becoming more independent, staying single longer, and building successful careers. The show also broke new ground by focusing on Mary's work life and interactions with her colleagues, rather than her personal life and romantic or family relationships. Some TV critics have credited the series with launching the genre of "workplace comedy," a type of program in which the majority of the show takes place in the main characters' place of work. Examples include such popular shows as Taxi, Cheers, Murphy Brown, and The Office.

The most-watched telecast of all time

Another 1970s sitcom remembered for its realism and dark humor was M*A*S*H, which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1983. It centered on a U.S. Army doctor, Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (played by Alan Alda [1936–]), working in a field hospital near the front lines of the Korean War (1950–53). The staff of the hospital also included a number of supporting characters with widely differing backgrounds and viewpoints. More so than any previous sitcom, M*A*S*H combined comedy with serious and sad moments that often made it seem like a drama. Reviewers even coined a new term, "dramedy," to describe its unusually downbeat style of humor.

The series creator, Larry Gelbart (1928–), explained that he gave the series a dark side in order to comment on the senselessness of war. "We all felt very keenly that inasmuch as an actual war was going on [in Vietnam], we owed it to the sensibilities and the sensitivities of an audience to take cognizance of [recognize] the fact that Americans were really being killed every week," he told the New York Times. Stark claimed that the tone of the series matched the mood of most Americans at that time. "All this darkness fit a post-Watergate, disillusioned nation," he wrote. "Looking back, one can detect a distinct sense that people expected to be depressed in the 1970s, and that M*A*S*H did not disappoint them."

M*A*S*H won fourteen Emmy Awards and enjoyed steady popularity during its decade-long run. Nevertheless, many critics were surprised by the phenomenal success of the series finale in 1983. This special episode was the length of a made-for-TV movie. In keeping with the dark tone of the series, it opened with Alda's character, Hawk-eye, in a psychiatric ward after witnessing a tragic event and suffering a mental breakdown. It closed with the war coming to an end and Hawkeye returning to his life in the United States. More than 125 million viewers tuned in to watch the characters of M*A*S*H say a final farewell, making the episode the most-watched single TV telecast of all time. Most experts predict that M*A*S*H will never lose this distinction, thanks to changes in the television industry. Since the episode aired, the rise of cable TV has given viewers a vast array of channel options and made it virtually impossible for a single episode to attract such a large audience.

Taking comfort in TV families

Not all 1970s television series featured family conflicts and dark humor. In fact, a whole other vein of shows developed to provide young viewers with a safe, comfortable place to retreat from the disrupting changes taking place in other areas of American life. One of the shows from this era that has enjoyed enduring popularity is The Brady Bunch. The show did not attract a large audience during its initial run on ABC from 1969 to 1974. It developed a strong following in reruns, however, and remains popular into the 2000s.

The Brady Bunch concerns a nontraditional family that is formed when a widower (a husband whose wife has died) with three sons marries a widow (a wife whose husband has died) with three daughters. Sherwood Schwartz (1916–), the TV producer responsible for Gilligan's Island, came up with the idea for the series after reading an article about rising divorce rates and the creation of blended families, or new families that are created by combining previous families. He told Stark that he intended for the show to appeal to young audiences. "This was not a show for adults or their problems," he explained. "It's a show primarily for kids and their problems. A lot of those problems were relevant [important] 100 years before the show, and I'm sure that those same problems will be relevant 100 years after the show."

The Most-Watched TV Telecasts of All Time

As of January 1, 2006, the following three telecasts (or single episodes) received the highest ratings in the history of network television broadcasting:

  1. M*A*S*H series finale, 1983 (50 million households, 60.2 share)
  2. Dallas episode "Who Shot J.R.?" 1980 (42 million households, 53.3 share)
  3. Roots miniseries final episode, 1977 (36 million households, 51.1 share)

Five of the top ten most-watched telecasts of all time are sporting events (four NFL Super Bowl telecasts and one evening's coverage of the 1994 Winter Olympics). Rounding out the list are the two parts of the first television broadcast of Gone with the Wind in 1976.

It is interesting to note that—other than sporting events—the most recent telecast to rank among the most-watched telecasts of all time was the series finale of Cheers in 1993. Since then, cable TV has increased the number of channels available to viewers and thus made it more difficult for individual episodes to attract mass audiences.

In fact, The Brady Bunch appealed to a broad range of kids—both boys and girls, of various ages—by giving them six different young characters with whom to identify. At a time when a growing number of young people had to deal with divorce and families created by second marriages, the Bradys provided a model of a highly functional blended family. It also appealed to kids of the 1980s and 1990s who enjoyed escaping into a more pleasant, innocent time. "While adult viewers began tuning in to more realistic and sophisticated shows, like All in the Family and M*A*S*H, a sizable young audience seemed to want, even need, an unthreatening, reassuring view of life," Joe Garner wrote in Stay Tuned: Television's Unforgettable Moments. "As societal problems and cultural gaps grew more intractable [impossible to change], The Brady Bunch appeared to provide a perfect way to restore childhood innocence once a week."

Another 1970s sitcom that appealed to this sense of nostalgia, or longing for the past, was Happy Days. It aired on ABC for a decade, beginning in 1974, and was the highest-rated program on TV for one season. Created by Garry Marshall (1934–), it followed the adventures of a high school student named Richie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard [1954–]), along with his loving family and group of friends. The key to its popularity was that it took place during the 1950s—a simpler era when social interactions centered on sock hops, soda fountains, and "going steady."

Another TV program that provided comfort to young viewers, Little House on the Prairie, aired on NBC from 1974 to 1983. Based on an autobiographical series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series followed the Ingalls family as they struggled to build a home on the prairie near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, in the 1800s. It starred Michael Landon (1936–1991) of Bonanza fame as Pa Ingalls and Melissa Gilbert (1964–) as his daughter Laura. Over time, the series tackled some difficult subjects, including blindness, alcohol addiction, and racism. But it always did so from a foundation of mutual love, respect, and sensitivity to others. Little House on the Prairie became popular with a whole new generation of fans in the twenty-first century, thanks to a growing interest in American history.

Expanding the boundaries of TV

Two hit shows from the 1970s were unlike anything that had come before, and both expanded the boundaries of television in their own ways. One of these shows was Saturday Night Live (SNL for short) a skit-comedy series which made its debut in 1975 and still played on NBC in the 2000s. From the beginning of its long run, SNL pushed the boundaries of language and subject matter considered acceptable on television. Although the quality and influence of the show varied over time, for many years it was a pop-culture phenomenon that young adults who wanted to be up-to-date could not afford to miss. Garner wrote: "The show was at its best and most influential with the original cast in the mid- to late 1970s, when it transformed television, societal mores [values], and America's social calendar for Saturday night."

The other show was Roots, which became the first successful TV miniseries (a program that includes more than one episode, but ends after a few episodes rather than continuing for an entire season) when it aired on ABC for eight consecutive nights in 1977. Based on a historical novel by Alex Haley, Roots followed four generations of an African American family descended from one African man who was brought to the United States and sold as a slave. To the surprise of the network, it became one of the most-watched television events of all time. All eight episodes ranked among the top twenty in total number of viewers up to that time, and the final episode held the top spot for several years.

Roots was broadcast six months after the nation's bicentennial (200th birthday) celebration, which had helped focus Americans' interest on history and the experiences of ancestors. Some people hoped that the mini-series would raise awareness of the hardships suffered by African Americans and thus lead to improved race relations in the United States. The success of Roots did change the history of television by giving rise to other successful miniseries—such as Lonesome Dove and The Thorn Birds—and multi-part serial dramas.

For More Information


Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Calabro, Marian. Zap! A Brief History of Television. New York: Four Winds Press, 1992.

Castleman, Harry, and Walter Podrazik. Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Garner, Joe. Stay Tuned: Television's Unforgettable Moments. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2002.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Jones, Gerard. Honey, I'm Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television: The Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Owen, Rob. Gen X TV: "The Brady Bunch" to "Melrose Place." New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Stark, Steven D. Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today. New York: The Free Press, 1997.


Gelbart, Larry. "Its Creator Says Hail and Farewell to 'M*A*S*H.'" New York Times, February 27, 1983.


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