July 17, 2008

Lower turnover in popular culture after 1980

Do people have shorter cultural attention spans these days? Is cultural change more chaotic than before? No, judging from the popularity of TV shows, which are as good of an indicator of popular culture as any.

I used a simple measure of cultural turnover: of the 10 TV shows with the highest Nielsen ratings in a given year, how many of them were not already in the top 10 in the previous year? If it is 0, then the popular shows of last year are the same as this year; if it is 10, then last year's popular shows have been completely replaced this year. Choosing the top 10 instead of 20 or 30 is arbitrary, but I just want a feel for change over time. (This is how Stanley Lieberson, in A Matter of Taste, measures cultural turnover in naming tastes.)

The data start in 1951 and go through 1999, with only 1987 excluded due to a goof in the website's lists. If a TV show was listed twice in a single year (e.g., if its Thursday and Saturday episodes were both highly watched), I expanded that year's list to include 10 unique shows. That only happened twice. Here is the turnover rate across the decades:

It looks like there's a downward trend after about 1980, but let's be more specific. Using either of two rank correlations between year and turnover rate shows a significant and negative relationship: Kendall's tau = -0.22 (p = 0.037, two-tailed), and Spearman's rho = -0.32 (p = 0.048). The median and mode of the turnover rates are both 4, so we can look for when the turnover rate was consistently higher or lower than 4. For the below-4 values, there is a very clear separation between a chunk from 1980 onward and a handful of outliers in the '50s and '60s. Likewise, for the above-4 values, there is a chunk pre-1980 and some outliers afterward. I've shown this by modifying the graph above:

The pre-1980 period is characterized by a high turnover rate -- 4 above-median values for every 1 below-median value -- while the post-1980 period shows greater stability -- 3.7 below-median values for every 1 above-median value. So, it was the popular culture of previous generations that showed greater fickleness, a shorter attention span, and so on. Of course, members of those generations will spin these results as showing that their popular culture was not fickle but innovative, while the current one is not focused but static. This is how Steve Sailer describes the recent history of rock and rap music, for example, and oddly enough he pegs the start of stylistic stagnation in the early 1980s as well.

Whatever emotional coloring we give to the facts, there's always a downside to innovation: more failed experiments are broadcast as a fraction of the whole, and what good stuff that is produced doesn't last very long. Wild innovation is great in science, and when used by a genius in the arts. However, science permits greater experimentation because the only constraint is that the innovation be on the right track in modeling the world. The arts are far more constrained: they must please the human mind, which is a picky eater. Especially when you get to the level of talent found among TV show writers -- just find something good and stick with it as long as you can.


  1. You might want to consider that this is the first decade since the 1920's that we have not had an entirely new genre of music to emerge.

  2. Man Im old enough to remember TV shows like "Carter Country" and "The Waltons" and "Barney Miller" etc.

    TV shows got progressively better fairly quickly through the seventies and eighties and first few years of the nineties. Then they suddenly seemed very repetitive.

    A good deal of the reason we watch TV, whether we know it or not concisously, is to learn a little bit about the world around us and how to manipulate it for our own betterment. Much of what one learns about the criminal life and police procedure/legal procedure when they are young is going to be gleaned from televsion. The first time I had ever heard of a "gang" was from a 1979 movie called "The Warriors" that was rebroadcast in 1982 on Television. I honestly had no idea there were such things (I grew up in a nice place).

    Political correctness really soured TV for me personally. After watching the umpteenth episode of 'Law and Order' have yet another Manhattan white-upper-class-professional-murder someone, instead of the people who ordinarily commit crimes (we know who the statistics say commit crime, and it ain't white yuppies), I sort of turned the TV off for things other than news and sports. Politically-correct sitcoms, which always portrayed traditional fathers as stupid dolts also played a role in this. I knew the audience was being manipulated by "Lifetime Lite" (although Lifetime didn't exist back then to my knowledge) and resented it. Norman Lear probably subtlely started all of that with 'All in the Family', but it got more overt as years passed. 'LA Law' and the like were both condescending and boring and insulting at the same time.

    If you have ever had an opportunity to watch some of the old TV classic shows like "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest" and "Dynasty" in re-runs,.............they've aged pretty badly. They seem downright corny and contrived as daytime soap in some instances. This is one reason that crime dramas (cop shows) can stay interesting longer...........new crimes and new people every week. In soaps, folks can only get divorced or go through marital discord or financial duress so many times before it gets hackneyed and ridiculous.

    For a show that looks plain silly now..............rent an episode of Miami Vice. The clothes alone were a laugh track. It would be a Borat-like-gag for some comedian to get gussied up in that garb and walk through Southbeach today. I actually remember the no-shoe trend. I bet sales of Tinactin went sky high about one year afterwards. It was literally about a different drug bust almost every single week. That show got boring by the end of the first season, but was "stylish" and actually got extremely popular in its second season (by the time I gave up on it).

    Im suprised that people dont want something more from television than half-hour to one hour "make-believe" shows. I really enjoy Discovery Channel stuff, "How Did They Build That", America's Most Wanted, and "real" reality based programming. I still love nature-and-space related programming that one learns something by watching...

    I think HBO is onto something by planning shows to have a half-life of only two or three seasons instead of hoping shows run for a decade. I cannot fathom how "Friends" was ever popular other than guys likiing to look at Jennifer Anniston. I can rent a porno or watch a "Girls Gone Wild" video and look at hot babes. It is astonishing that un-funny tripe like that can last so damned long and mean so much to its audience.

    My little idea for a nuts-and-bolts TV drama was already done in the early 80's, but they went over the top with it. It was a show about a private detective called "Spenser for Hire". I have read many of these entertaining little books by the author. If the creators and writers didn't insist on a untangling resolution in one episode, a private detective show could really be fun. It wouldn't have to even be about one detective. It could be about unravelling credit scams, Enron-like companies, the occasional cheating spouse episode, cold-case murder kind of episodes, etc. Base it on old files at first and people would be hooked. A show like that could have a good five year run with multiple plots that wouldn't be so emulating of previous episodes. I'd bet that real-life detectives could send in some juicy stories for the writers to cop also.......

    Cable, IMO, has saved television. Could you all imagine if we were still stuck watching the big three channels and public television?


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