How the Dial Has Changed: A Look Back at TV

Posted on October 24, 2012


Network television has largely reflected the events that drive our history; and, as communicators, it is important that we understand past trends in broadcast if we intend to predict its future direction and analyze TV’s meaning and role in the lives of Americans.

The reality of television today, unfortunately, is reality television. Excluding musical competitions, reality TV is so prolific because it’s cheap to produce (in every sense of the word), outrageous in its content, accessible because of the wealth of cable channels cluttering the dial, and reassuring to viewers that perhaps their life is not so terrible after all.  They’ve become the market’s “real-life” soap operas, largely replacing the conventional afternoon serial.

At its inception—and some would say its height –TV programming was not based on the intimate confessions of semi-psychotic personalities; in fact, it once was a source of literature. Great authors and storytellers—Paddy Chayefsky, Gore Vidal, Rod Serling, Abby Mann, Tad Mosel and many others—thrived during the 1950s on anthology series like Playhouse 90, Studio 1, Kraft Television Theater and The Philco Television Playhouse. The dramas and other productions offered by these weekly series often explored reality in the deeply meaningful way of the playwright and the author of classic literature.

Because TV technology was in its infancy, these programs were live until late in the decade and used the simplest of sets, rarely venturing outside the studio. They were theaters in our living rooms, rather than bedrooms in our bonus rooms. The Golden Age of Television lasted only a decade, but it engendered stars that would frequently populate movie and TV screens, many throughout the remainder of the century and beyond: Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Kim  Hunter, James Dean, Martin Sheen and Elizabeth Montgomery among them.

Simultaneously with this Golden Age of drama, TV was inventing television show formats that would evolve through the turn of the century. Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon owe their late-night talk show heritage to the zaniness of Broadway Open House, hosted by Morey Amsterdam and Jerry Lester,and to The Tonight Show, launched by Steve Allen.

Yet another format emerged in that first decade of post-war TV—one that dominated the airwaves of the 1950s and early ‘60s in the same manner that reality TV haunts every channel today. Until it was outgunned by The Simpsons and tied by Law and Order, Gunsmoke was the longest-running primetime scripted  series in the history of television, on the air from 1955 to 1975. At the time, Gunsmoke was referred to as the first “adult Western,” a show that focused, not on heroes riding white stallions and lassoing bad guys, but one that explored the lives and motivations of its characters.

Throughout the mid-to-late 1950s, adult Westerns dominated the TV schedule, with series like The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Cheyenne, Have Gun—Will Travel, Bonanza and Wanted, Dead or Alive. According to the Classic Film Union fan page, in 1958, the number of adult Westerns on the air totaled 31.

Adult Westerns yielded to crime shows, and ultimately a second Golden Age appeared—this time, for comedy. Between 1970 and 1972, some of television’s most groundbreaking and endearing situation comedies began their runs: All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and M*A*S*H led the way toward more intelligent and more daring TV comedy fare, often dealing with such serious topics as bigotry, women’s rights, homosexuality and the psychological ravages of war.

Today, if we can wade through the reality swamp, another Golden Age has been in the making, one that is reminiscent of the great dramas of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, like Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law. Network series like Madmen, The Good Wife, NCIS, Last Resort, Castle, Criminal Minds, Grey’s Anatomy and Blue Bloods show the spark, intelligence and humanity of TV’s classic dramas.

Spread over seemingly interminable periods between these high points were stretches of really bad shows and really regretful trends, but what has not changed is the impact of television on our culture, popular catchphrases (view 100 of them from Seinfeld) and the way we look at our own lives.