Friday, 21 July 2006

Fad TV

For many of us living in the United States, the good news is that the heat wave of the past week has finally broken. Here in Missouri today has been relatively cool for the season (highs in the eighties). It also has been a bit gloomy, which suits me fine. These days I'd still feel gloomy even if it was sunny. Anyhow, I suppose I should get on with a real blog entry.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word fad as "A fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time; a craze." Given its ephemeral nature, television may naturally be given to fads. The various cycles, such as the one towards Westerns in the Fifties and the one towards police procedurals in the Naughts could well be considered minor fads in and of themselves (at least within the television industry itself). This having been said, television has produced its own fair share of fads that have extended beyond the small screen. Like any other fad, a "fad show" is one that sparks intense interest for a short time before going out of fashion.

Indeed, regular network broadcasts had only been around for less than ten years when the first, full blown television fad emerged. Many baby boomers may have fond memories of the craze surrounding the five Davy Crockett segments which aired on Disneyland in the mid-Fifties. The first episode, Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter aired on December 15, 1954. Two more epsiodes featuring Fess Parker as the frontier man aired in short order. They proved so successful that Disney produced two more adventures featuring Crockett, the last one airing on December 14, 1955. The episodes were even edited together as a motion picture and released to theatres where the resulting film did very well. But the Davy Crockett segments did something nothing else on television had before--it became an outright craze among youngsters. Merchandise, from coonskin caps to the episodes' theme song ("The Ballad of Davy Crockett") to bath towels, flew off store shelves. In the end $300 million worth of Davy Crockett related merchandise was sold. Despite the intense interest on the behalf of the nation's youth and the incredible sales of its merchandise, the Davy Crockett phenomenon was truly a fad. By 1956 the Davy Crockett had played itself out. Whereas coonskin caps had been in huge demand the previous year, they were just languishing on store shelves by 1956.

Of course, technically the Davy Crockett segments on Disneyland were a mini-series (perhaps the first on American television), not a TV series proper. Most television fads have centred on TV shows. And perhaps the quintessential fad show was the Sixties live action TV series Batman. By the mid-Sixties ABC had consistently been in third place among the networks. Desperate for a hit, they took notice of the renewed interest in comic book superheroes and the current Pop Art fad (in which "serious" artists turned pop culture artefacts, including comic book pictures, into "art") and struck upon the idea of a show centred upon a superhero. The superhero they chose was Batman, a character who had been around for over 25 years and was second in popularity only to Superman. To produce the series they looked to television veteran William Dozier, who had been a programmer at CBS and production head at Screen Gems. Dozier decided the best route to go as afar as a Batman TV show would be comedy. Essentially, the series would work on two levels--as high adventure for children and outright comedy for adults. To this end, the TV show was highly stylised. The show's direction was often unusual, including Dutch tilt angles (a shot in which the horizon of the frame is not parallel with the bottom of the frame--it was often used on the show when the villains were scheming). The fight scenes were littered with animated "Pows" and "Whams." And with the exception of some of the villains, the acting was always played dead serious, no matter how ludicrous the situation. Further setting Batman apart from anything that had gone before it, it was perhaps the only comedy on American television at the time without a laughtrack.

While many ABC executives had little faith in the new show, ABC put a good deal of promotion into Batman. It was advertised on other ABC shows prior to its debut and ABC even went so far as to hire a skywriter to create the words "Batman is coming" above the Rose Bowl. Even so, it was a bit of a shock even to ABC when Batman debuted on Janurary 12, 1966 with almost a 50 percent share of the audience. The ratings for the series continued to be phenomenonal for the rest of the season. In the end, Batman (which aired twice a week) ranked twice in the top ten shows for the 1965-1966 season--the Wednesday night airings ranked #10 and the Thursday night showings ranked #5. Furthermore, there was an incredible demand for Batman merchandise. Everything from toy Batmobiles to toy Batphones to record albums emerged as merchandising for the series. Indeed, as a very young child I can remember that the Montgomery Ward catalogue had around two or three pages dedicated to Batman merchandise. In its first season alone, Batman produced around $75 million in merchandise. Further demonstrating the show's success, in the summer of 1966 a feature film based on the series was released. No surprise, it was a success at the box office. The show was covered in major magazines from Life to The Saturday Evening Post.

Unfortunately for ABC and William Dozier, the craze soon ended. The show's ratings declined in the second season to the point that ABC seriously considered cancelling the show. It was saved only by the addition of Batgirl. This was not enough, however, as the show's ratings continued to fall in the third season. In its first season Batman attracted 55 percent of the audience, with about 66 percent of the viewers being adults. By the third season, only ten percent of Batman's audience were adults. As a very expensive show with dwindling ratings, ABC chose to cancel the series. It left the air on March 14, 1968. It almost received a reprieve when NBC expressed interest in picking up the show provided the sets were still standing. Unfortunately, they weren't. Only a little over two years after its debut, Batman had left network airwaves.

Of course, Batman was not the first fad show of the Sixties. Before Batman, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. were the men of the hour. Unlike many fad shows, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not a hit from the very beginning. Debuting in the fall of 1964, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. suffered from such poor ratings that it was not even on NBC's tenetative 1965-1966 schedule as of December 1966. In an effort to turn the show's fortunes around, its producers launched a publicity campaign. At the same time there was a lot of good word of mouth on the part of the show's loyal viewers. By May 1965, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had become an outright fad. In its second season The Man From U.N.C.L.E. hit its peak, regularly ranking in the weekly top ten TV series. It produced a lot of merchandising, from games to toy U.N.C.L.E. guns to clothing. At its peak, the show received 10,000 fan letters a week. Like Batman later, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would be covered by many major magazines.

Unfortunately, the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not to last. While its ratings had been phenomenal in its second season, they plummeted in the third season. Much of this may well have been due to the dramatic shift in the series from tongue in cheek adventure to outright comedy in its third season, but much of it might also have been due to the fad simply having run its course. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. returned for a fourth season, when it once more returned to serious spy drama, but it only lasted until mid-season. It last aired on any network on January 15, 1968.

If the rises and falls of Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. seem dramatic, they are perhaps nowhere as dramatic as that of Twin Peaks. Created by famous director David Lynch, Twin Peaks was hyped heavily by ABC prior to its debut. And while it rarely beat its rival on NBC (the classic Cheers), Twin Peaks did very well in the ratings in its first season. It was also the most talked about show on American television at the time. Twin Peaks was covered in many major magazines, from People to Newsweek. Unfortunately, its success would not last. In its second season, ratings for Twin Peaks fell dramatically. In February of 1991, it ranked 85th out of the 89 shows then on the air in primetime. That April Twin Peaks was placed on an indefinite hiatus. Its final episodes would not air until that June. Twin Peaks, the most talked about series of the 1989-1990 season, had left the air after only a little over a year. It only lasted from April 1990 to June 1991.

Of course, there have been other "fad shows" than these. The Monkees, Charlie's Angels, and many reality shows could be argued to have been fad shows. Fad shows usually have a good deal in common. In most cases (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an exception), fad shows are hits from the beginning. Batman, Charlie's Angels, Twin Peaks, and many other fad shows received phenomenal ratings upon their debut. Many fad shows (Twin Peaks was an exception to this rule) also to tend to appeal to both children and adults. This was particularly true of Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Another phenomenon seen with many fad shows is that eventually they become cult shows as well. Both The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Batman had relatively short network runs, but they lasted in syndication and developed strong cult followings. Unlike the pet rock or mood rings, most fad shows seem to survive cancellation (that is, the official end of the fad) to become lasting parts of pop culture.

Beyond anything else, the one thing that nearly all of them have in common is that they lasted only briefly, achieving phenomenal ratings in a relatively short time before dropping in the ratings to the point that they are cancelled. It is true that there are other factors that probably played a role in the cancellation of most fad shows. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took a turn towards comedy in its third season, as well as an overall drop in the quality of its episodes, that probably shortened its run. In its second season Batman fell into a formula in which one episode differed very little from another. In its third season it was cut back to one night a week. Both of these things were probably factors in their demise. As to Twin Peaks, it was a serial when serialised dramas were not popular, it mixed genres (everything from comedy to science fiction) to a degree unseen in most shows before, and ABC moved the show all over its schedule. What was probably the major contributing factor in the demise of these and other fad shows, however, is simply that people tired of them. All fads have a limited lifespan, generally of about a year or less. Furthermore, the lifespan of any fad is usually related to the intensity with which that fad is taken up. At its peak, over one hundred million hula hoops were sold, yet the fad lasted less than a year. That the intensity of any given fad usually reflects the brevity of its lifespan is shown in how short the runs of many fad shows are. Batman lasted only a little over two years. Twin Peaks only lasted a little over a year. Quite simply, like any other fad, people eventually became burned out on them.

It seems to me that since the Sixties there have been fewer and fewer shows which have become fads. I suspect most of this is due to the fact that network television's influence had delined in the intervening decades, largely due to competition from cable television, video games, personal computers, DVDs, and other technological developments. Obviously people still take an intense interest in TV shows, as the success of both Lost and Desperate Housewives demonstrate. That having been said, it remains to be seen if Lost and Desperate Housewives are simply fad shows that last only a few seasons or shows that will have long network runs.

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