February 26, 2013

Spectacle TV has long-term cycles of popularity

One of the stranger developments in recent popular culture is the stratospheric rise of reality TV, game shows, and musical variety shows. What ever happened to sit-coms? Those were fun -- they didn't require a life-long commitment to follow their narrative threads, and they were down-to-earth rather than bombastic. Whenever I watch TV while visiting home, it seems to get worse and worse each year.

While everyone is aware of the absence of these kinds of shows in the good old days, and their dominance today, it may come as a surprise to learn that in yet another domain the fixtures of Millennial-era culture are reviving the mid-century, consciously or not.

A quick graph will make the point. I looked at TV shows by ratings, and kept the top 20 that were original programming -- excluding sports broadcasts and Hollywood movies shown on TV. (There are only a handful at most in any year, but I'm going to stick with original programming.) I then checked their entries at IMDb.com to see what genres each show has been tagged with -- comedy, drama, crime, etc. -- and found how many hit shows in each year belonged to either the reality, game show, or musical genres. Here is the pattern over time, from the 1950-'51 season to the 2011-'12 season:

We see the well known recent rise, and their near absence in the most of the '70s, '80s, and even into the mid-'90s. But that lack of spectacle TV did not extend indefinitely back into the early days. In fact, it was just as dominant in the '50s as it has been in the 21st century -- nearly half of the top 20 shows -- before gradually declining during the '60s and early '70s. The mid-century craze for game shows and musical variety also showed up in top-rated radio programs.

There wasn't as much reality TV back in the '50s, although they did have This Is Your Life. I'd attribute that more to technological limitations -- the medium had just begun, and they hadn't figured out how to easily document people's lives as they were happening. There was also a reality show or two during the heyday of radio programs, but I don't immediately recall their names.

While the ratings are the best guide to what really resonated with audiences, you see the same rough mix of genres in the full line-up of shows. Here is an archive of prime-time schedules going back to 1950, and here is an archive of ratings. Lots of game shows and musical variety hours in the '50s, lots of sit-coms in the '80s, and lots of reality / game show / musical shows in the 21st century.

Why are these spectacle types of shows more popular in falling-crime times? It seems like they're substituting virtual excitement for real-life excitement. People don't go out of their houses to do exciting things anymore -- even occasionally, like feeling blown away by a Fourth of July spectacle. Yet they still want something stimulating to take part in, especially as part of a larger audience.

That would also explain why TV is not so bombastic in rising-crime times -- people have enough excitement going on in real life, between playing sports, cruising around in cars, dance fever, live music, and carnivalesque "shopping" trips. (The excitement came from being part of the bustling crowd, as most people didn't actually buy anything during a trip to the mall.)

I also think people are looking for answers more during rising-crime times. When crime seems to only keep going up, what's going wrong in the world, and how can we try to make things better? Even if it's at the basic level of how we treat the other people in our daily lives, not a utopian social engineering project. That's what the sit-coms of the '80s were all about -- not preaching a message, but reminding us of basic truths about how we ought to treat each other if we want to remain socially cohesive in topsy-turvy times.

Reality TV, game shows, and musical variety hours prevent any learning or awareness from taking place in the larger course of entertainment. They're pure diversion. And with sit-coms, it's not "learning that..." but "learning how..." It's practical rather than nerdy learning. When the threat of crime, security, and danger seem to be taking care of themselves without our even thinking about them, then why bother seeking answers? Just tune in to the spectacle instead.


  1. It's my impression that the musical was a much more popular movie genre in the past. Basically from the beginning of the "talkies", and possibly ending with the "new wave" of cinema auteurs in the late 60s/early 70s.

  2. The music went from being performed by the characters to the music video style where it wasn't necessary -- the music and image stream working together. Actually, like a re-birth of the silent film. Another case of the Eighties being the neo-Twenties.

    Just about every hit song from a soundtrack is from the '80s, for example. And it wasn't only one song; soundtracks used to be packed with good music.

    Footloose had *two* #1's, and the others reached 7, 17, 22, and 34. Six top-40's on a single soundtrack. Top Gun did almost as well -- #1, 2, 12, and 60. Many others had at least one top 10 -- Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, etc.

    Those'll probably hold up better over time than the numbers from mid-century musicals.

  3. When people watch a sitcom, they believe it is a more or less accurate reflection of reality.

    The first is that as people's lives become more boring and depressing, the materiel for sitcoms dries up. People want to watch sitcoms which reflect their own life, but who wants to watch a sitcom about being on the computer all the time?


  4. Yes, there seems to have been a big shift from orchestras to already recorded popular music.

  5. "Already recorded"? They were original, newly released songs for the movie / soundtrack. Every one I mentioned.

    Few movies back then made use of music that had been released earlier without the intent of tying them into a movie. That would've been cheating the audience.

  6. "but who wants to watch a sitcom about being on the computer all the time?"

    AKA Big Bang Theory. I can't believe that show lands in the top 20 for ratings, and is basically the only popular sit-com these days. My brother and mother tried to show me an episode or two, but it was so frustratingly lame.

    BTW, have you noticed how there are no Millennial actors or actresses on TV? What happened to teen stars? Those guys on Big Bang Theory are all Gen X or Gen Y, including David and Darlene from Roseanne.

  7. ...and that's a relatively youth-oriented show. Then you've got all the CSI, JAG, House, Gray's Anatomy, etc. The serial drama focuses almost entirely on Gen X and Boomers, though there may be some Gen Y folks in there too.

    If there are teen / young adult shows still being made, they never land in the top of the ratings like they did in the '80s.

    It's kind of like how most of the great mid-century movies are usually driven by middle-aged actors from the Greatest Gen, instead of the younger Silent Generation.

    But, you'd think that wouldn't apply to TV as well, where lighter teen / young adult shows would fare better.


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