Thursday, March 31, 2005

Television Cycles

From time to time in this blog I have discussed cycles in television. I've discussed the spy cycle of the Sixites and the Western cycle of the Fifties among others. For those of you who are wondering what a cycle is, it is basically a trend or direction; in the instance of television it is ususally a trend or direction in the genres or formats of TV shows. Here I must point out that television is not the only medium in which cycles take place. Motion pictures have had their fair share of cycles. There was the gangster cycle of the Thirties and the fantasy cycle of the Eighties. Comic books have had their fair share of cycles, too, the most obvious example being the Golden Age of comic books when superheroes were in vogue. I suppose another way of looking at cycles, whether they are in television, movies, music, or some other medium, are as fads of a sort. The primary difference between a cycle and a fad that I can see is that fads tend to have a lot shorter life span.

One thing that cycles do have in common with fads is that it is sometimes difficult to determine what causes them. In some cases, the cause may be fairly obvious. As I see it, the Western cycle of the Fifties was pretty much the result of at least three things. The first thing was the continued popularity of the Western in motion pictures, books, and comic books. From the Silent Era to the Fifties, Hollywood probably produced more Westerns than any other genre, even though the majority were admittedly B movies. Western authors, such as Max Brand, Zane Grey, and Louis L'Amour have always have large followings. It was perhaps inevitable that television would start making Westerns in large quantities. Second, 1952 and 1953 saw two major motion pictures in the Western genre top the box office--High Noon and Shane respectively. With two Westerns being fairly respectable hits at the box office, television producers and the networks might well look to the genre as a possible source of hit TV series. Third, there were three Westerns that debuted in 1955: Cheyenne, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp , and Gunsmoke. All three of these things perhaps led to the Western cycle of the Fifties, although I have to wonder if the third may have been the most pivotal in the creation of the cycle. Let's face it, if Cheyenne, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Gunsmoke had flopped, there would have been no Western cycle. While debut more shows of the same type as shows that have bombed?

In fact, I think more often than not cycles result from television producers and the networks rushing to create more series of the same type as the latest hit. There is perhaps no more obvious example than the police procedural cycle of the past few years. Law and Order and its spinoffs have performed relatively well over the years, and then in 200 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation debuted. The show became a hit and as a result the networks rushed to create yet more police procedurals. Another example is the reality show cycle of the past few years. Survivor was the hit of summer 2000. As a result, the networks debuted yet more and more reality series.

Of course, sometimes the cause of any given cycle may not be blatantly obvious. This seems to me to be true of the majority of medical show cycles in the history of television. It seems to me that cycles in medical shows simply spring out of thin air, with two or three series debuting at once. Unlike the Western cycle of the Fifties, there are no hit movies one can look to as a source of inspiration. Unlike the police procedural cycle of the Naughts, there is not one single hit show (in this case, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), that one can look to as having sparked the cycle. It seems to me medical shows cycles just spring up with no discernable cause. By way of example, both Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey debuted in 1961, even though there were no movies with a medical theme that had been hits at the box office. The fact that both of those shows were hits did create a small medical cycle in the early Sixties, although it produced no hits. In 1994 both E.R. and Chicago Hope (I think yet another medical show may have debuted that season as a mid-season replacement, although I may be wrong on that...), even though there was no apparent interest on the part of the public in medical shows. Again, both E.R. and Chicago Hope were hits and sparked a small cycle towards medical shows. I am sure that there was something that sparked both the medical show cycles of the Sixties and Nineties, but it is not one that seems to me to be blatantly obvious. I rather suspect figuring out the cause between both cycles could prove very difficult.

As to whether cycles in television are a good thing or not, that is difficult to say. On the one hand, there have been cycles that hae produced a number of classic series. The Western cycle of the Fifties, the spy cycle of the Sixties, and the imaginative sitcom cycle of the Sixties all produced their fair share of classic shows. On the other hand, cycles can force shows of other genres off the air until, in the end, the television schedule is dominated by shows of one single genre. This happened with the Western cycle of the Fifties. There were seasons during the Western cycle when there was virtually a Western TV show every night, but a noticeable lack of police or medical shows. The same was true to a lesser degree of the lawyer cycle of the Nineties. There were a lot of lawyer shows on the air, but very few sci-fi shows or mysteries. Worse yet, it seems to me that the lawyer shows of that time were largely derivative. As to whether any given cycle is good or bad, I suppose that depends on one's point of view. Obviuosly if one hates lawyer shows, then he or she will not like a cycle towards them.

It is difficult to say what cycles will arise in television in the coming years, although the success of Lost and Desperate Housewives may offer some clues. At any rate, as long as the public gets swept in various fads and crazes, I rather suspect the television industry will have cycles in programming. It seems to me that it is an established part of the television industry probably will never change.

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