Officially, baseball is America’s pastime, but there are only 750 players in the major leagues, some of whom aren’t even American. There are roughly 800 TV sets per 1,000 Americans, so, in truth, that title belongs to television. Television is America’s pastime.
History reaffirms this. Many of the most quintessentially American moments of the 20th and 21st centuries were televised: the moon landing, the “Miracle on Ice,” “Video Killed the Radio Star” premiering on MTV — even great, formative tragedies like the assassination of President Kennedy and 9/11. These moments formed a connective tissue between Americans, providing material that functioned as much more than just water cooler fodder. They were shared experiences.
Moments contrived in the writer’s room had a similar ability to consociate American viewers. The whipping scene in Roots, Ellen coming out on Ellen, even Suzanne Sugarbaker’s epic rants on Designing Women — they made us think, sparked controversy, started conversations and, just for a beat, stopped time. These were prime decades for scripted television, a time when even the most syrupy of sitcom franchises, from I Love Lucy to The Facts of Life, left you feeling unquestionably and indescribably fulfilled.
On February 29, 1983, 125.5 million Americans — an astounding 60 percent of American households — tuned in to watch the series finale of M*A*S*H. In a time before TiVo, this meant that over 100 million people shared a single narrative experience within a 30-minute time-frame. This is a phenomenon that, since the advent of TiVo and other evolved viewing platforms, has become impossible to replicate. The last scripted television show to crack the top 10 most-watched series finales was Friends, ending in May of 2004 with 52.5 million viewers. Youtube, the godfather of all Internet video, launched less than a year later.
Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne has measured a 50 percent collapse in broadcast television ratings since 2002; likewise, Citibank entertainment media analysts report a steady decline in cable viewership. Business Insider attributes this to “a generational shift, in which younger viewers don’t want cable or satellite service, just wireless Internet that allows them to view video on their tablets and laptops.” Why shell out to Time Warner when your favorite shows are a click away?
“Historically, there are format cycles all the time, even now as audiences continue to splinter,” says Walter Podrazik, curator at the Museum of Broadcast Communications and lecturer in communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The scripted sitcom has been declared dead multiple times, but often its resurrection has been the result of one or two titles breaking out.” He cites The Cosby Show as one of those game-changing breakouts. Soapy dramas like Dallas and Dynasty dominated prime time during the early 1980s until the Huxtables showed up on NBC.
“Cosby turned things around,” Podrazik says, “Except, it is worth noting, before Cosby’s show premiered, Newhart, Kate & Allie, Cheers and Family Ties were already in place! Cosby’s huge success changed the perception of the television landscape. Perhaps that’s in part what’s at play here: perceptions.”
Perhaps the issue is perceptive, as Podrazik insists. The availability of quality programming certainly fluctuates, as with any product market, and Cosby certainly closed the gap for early ‘80s sitcoms. Today, however, no one would argue we are in a quality content draught.
“TV is replacing movies as elite entertainment, because players like Netflix, HBO and AMC are in an arms race for lush, high-quality shows,” writes The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson. But with cable viewership shrinking, even HBO and AMC’s cinematic lineups are suffering through audience splintering. Game of Thrones, HBO’s juggernaut fantasy drama, has online piracy statistics that are almost equal with legitimate cable viewership. Therein lies the chief strategy of Internet video megalith Netflix.
“Netflix’s original-programming move is competition for cable,” Thompson writes. “The more time we spend on Netflix, the less time we spend on cable, the less valuable cable is.”
In short, market forces are driving viewers online. And while there is definitely no shortage of quality programming, the move to digital viewing is an unexampled shift in delivery. There is nothing to suggest that quality content won’t survive, but how will the culture of viewership fare?
Internet viewing, legal or illegal in nature, has effectively quashed the possibility of replicating a M*A*S*H moment. Not only are we watching on our own time, but in our own spaces. We’ve replaced the image of a family gathered around a communal TV set with that of an individual splayed on a bed or hunched over a desk with headphones. We’re watching TV on our smart phones, on the train, in airports and even in the office. If trends follow through and programming migrates entirely online, watching television will cease to be a community experience. It will probably remain America’s pastime, but more in the vein of stamp collecting than playing baseball.
So when people (journalists, bloggers and critics, mostly) claim we are in “a new Golden Age of Television,” I disagree. We already had a Golden Age — the Golden Age. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, House of Cards and its peers are of undeniable quality, but that quality is niche. They are loved intensely by a dense core of viewers, an increasing number of whom are accessing content online. This disconnects these programs from the national central nervous system. They are not M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Laverne & Shirley or Cheers — shows that intravenously linked to the hearts of American viewers. The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and Modern Family may partially replicate the vast viewership of such shows, but they don’t compare when it comes to quality. Seemingly, we are presented with a trade-off: high-quality shows that don’t translate over wide audiences or low-quality shows that leave us feeling empty. The perfect combination seems to have gone extinct.
The Cosby Show was one of those perfect combinations. The Huxtables had mass appeal, but that appeal wasn’t based on lowest common denominators. The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men are built on a model of cheap jokes and forced laughs, using laugh tracks to quite literally tell the viewer what’s funny. Cosby was “filmed in front of a live studio audience” (Rudy Huxtable voice). The laughter was genuine because the humor was smart and relatable. And the writers paired this light-hearted writing with more serious themes, trusting the audience to take away a multi-dimensional message from each episode. I personally will never forget the sixth season’s “The Night of the Wretched,” where perennially misstepping middle-child Vanessa went to a rock concert in Baltimore without her parents’ permission. Long story short: Her friend’s car gets stolen in Delaware and a ticket-scalping ne’er-do-well convinces the girls to give up their concert tickets. Claire and Cliff have to drive to the bus station in the middle of the night to collect her, and when they return, the following takes place:
I was probably 12 or 13 years old when I first watched “The Night of the Wretched.” On the verge of adolescence, I had never snuck off to a rock concert, but could certainly imagine my own mother’s reaction if I had.
“Vanessa went to Baltimore to have big fun.” That line sent chills down my spine — not because Claire Huxtable was particularly scary, but because the fearsome maternity with which her words were laced was something I recognized from my own mother, that squinty-eyed fury so passionate that it can only come from a place of love. Cosby writers captured a real, human moment. No, it didn’t have the dramatic urgency of a 24 countdown. It wasn’t a superficial, tongue-in-cheek confrontation you might see on Modern Family. It was a scene written to reflect how real American families interact. And while the shot of realism had the desired, sobering affect, Cliff’s peanut-gallery remarks maintained the overall buoyancy of the show. A perfect combination.
In his blog, Paley Center curator Ron Simon writes, “A conception of what television is has dramatically mutated over the years: from a mass entertainment medium broadcast into the family home to ‘TV on the go’ where any type of show can be accessed anytime, anywhere for the individual viewer. But through these permutations, TV has been defined by storytelling, with content always driving viewer interest.”
Assuredly, the perpetuation of quality content is what will preserve scripted TV (or TV-like media). But with such a fractured audience, indulging in content specialized to a point unprecedented, how can we claim that these stories connect us in the ways they once did? Who’s to say that we’re not on the road to individualized, “choose-your-own-adventure” style programming viewed through Google Glass?
American television will likely never again be what it once was — unless we, as a united audience, are willing to reject and defy the technological and economic trajectories. Of course, if print and vinyl are any indication of how such things play out, resistance is futile. Hopefully, for those of us who can remember the Golden Age of Television, reruns will remain to remind us what it was like.