Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Variety of Programming on American Broadcast Television

If there is one complaint I have had about the American broadcast networks is that for much of the history of American television there has not been a whole lot of variety in the types of TV shows we see. In fact, with but few exceptions, it seems to me that from the Seventies to the Nineties most network television shows fell into only a few genres: sitcoms, police dramas, medical dramas, and mysteries. It has only been relatively recently that we have seen anything approaching diversity in the sort of shows we see on the American networks.

It wasn't always this way. I was born in the Sixties. And while my memories of television in that decade is a bit vague as I was so young, I remember enough to know that there were more different types of shows aired in that decade than there would be in following decades. My knowledge of television history confirms this. Consider the year 1966 alone. There were science fiction shows (the classic Star Trek and the not so classic Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, and Time Tunnel). There were Westerns (Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Virginian, among others). There were adventure shows (Tarzan, The Green Hornet, and others). And the networks still aired variety shows, from the legendary Ed Sullivan Show to the classic Red Skelton Hour. The '66-'67 was the height of the spy boom, and there was no shortage of spy dramas, from British import The Avengers to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Of course, there were sitcoms, but they were a much more varied lot in the Sixties than they were in any other decade. There were rural comedies like The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies. There were imaginative sitcoms (comedies with a more fantastic bent) such as Gilligan's Island, The Monkees, and Bewitched. Spoofs and parodies were very much in fashion, as evidenced by Batman, Get Smart, and F Troop. There were family comedies like Please Don't Eat the Daisies and Family Affair. There were even shows that defied classification, such as The Wild Wild West (Is it a spy show? A Western? A sci-fi show?). In the 1966-1967 the broadcast networks (of which there were only three at the time) aired a greater variety of different sorts of shows in prime time. Indeed, I haven't even listed all the genres of shows aired at the time!

Sadly, as the Sixties became the Seventies, American broadcast television would see a decrease in the variety of genres of shows they aired. The spy boom would end, taking with it the many spy dramas of the decade. Variety shows would persist into the Seventies, although most of the variety shows which debuted that decade were short lived. Sitcoms would still vary a bit, ranging from socially relevant shows like All in the Family to dramedies like M*A*S*H to screwball comedies like Three's Company. And there was a cycle towards mysteries during the decade, ranging from Columbo to Cannon. There were also a few family dramas, such as The Waltons. Sadly, in the end it would seem that the Seventies would largely be dominated by medical dramas and police dramas.

The Eighties would fare no better, with even less variety in the sort of shows aired on the networks. The variety show had finally gave up the ghost after dying a slow death in the Seventies. While a few sitcoms off the beaten track, such as Cheers and Night Court, aired during the decade, for the most part the Eighties were dominated by a return of the family comedy, of which The Cosby Show is a prime example. There were a few nighttime soaps (Dallas and Dynasty), but most hour long shows in the decade tended to be either police dramas, medical dramas, or legal dramas.

The Nineties would be even worse than the Eighties. The decade would again be dominated by police dramas, medical dramas, and legal dramas. Indeed, it is the prevalence of legal dramas in the latter part of the Nineties I have always found curious. Usually cycles on American television continue because of the success of a certain type of show. ER was a hit in the Nineties, so naturally other medical dramas followed. N.Y.P.D. Blue was a hit, so naturally there were other police dramas. But the only legal drama in the late Nineties to have any sort of success was Ally McBeal which, quite frankly, wasn't that successful. Now to be honest, there were shows well off the beaten track that did air in the Eighties, but it seems as if they were confined to the younger networks. After all, this was the decade that The X-Files premiered on Fox and Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the WB. Unfortunately, it seems as if the older networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC) were content to air police dramas, medical dramas, and yet more legal dramas.

The early Naughts would be no different, only this time the legal dramas and medical dramas would be replaced by police procedurals, reality shows, and talent competitions. To be honest, police procedurals and talent competitions had not been seen on network television for some time. Unfortunately, the networks went overboard with them in the same way they went overboard with Westerns in the Fifties. The 2002-2003 season would see eleven different police procedurals on the air. I won't even talk about how many reality shows aired in any given season. While many good shows aired in the early Naughts, at the same time the early part of this decade saw the networks airing much the same sorts of shows every night.

Fortunately, it seems as if the past few seasons have seen the American broadcast networks expand with regards to the various genres of shows they air. It is true, many police procedurals are still on the air. It is true, reality shows have not completely left network television (one can only hope one day they do). Ultimately, however, even the older networks are airing more different sorts of shows. Perhaps due to talent shows such as American Idol and the success of Deal or No Deal, the game show has returned to prime time. Similarly, the success of Lost and Heroes has seen the debut of shows that, if not outright science fiction or fantasy, are at least well left of centre. There's the wonderful Pushing Daisies on ABC (easily the best new show of the season), vampire drama Moonlight on CBS, spy dramedy Chuck on NBC, The Sarah Connor Chronicles on Fox, and Reaper on the CW. In some respects it was Fox and ABC that led the way in broadening the networks' view. Early in the decade Fox had debuted 24 and ABC had debuted Alias, two spy dramas. Later the two networks between them would debut such left of centre shows as Lost, Desperate Housewives, Prison Break, and House (the medical drama that isn't a medical drama). The fact that all of these shows were hits probably opened the eyes of NBC and CBS, who realised they would have to change their programming if they were to compete.

Of course, there is no telling how long this current spate of variety in programming on the American broadcast networks will last. The Sixties produced a diverse number of shows in different genres, yet it gave way to the Seventies, which had considerably less variety. It could well be that once shows such as House and Pushing Daisies have run its course, we will simply see more sitcoms, police dramas, medical dramas, and, worst of all, legal dramas. The debut of Eli Stone, a rather standard legal drama that wants to be quirky but isn't, could be a very bad sign of things to come. One can only hope that it isn't and the networks will continue to air a wide variety of different sorts of show. Who knows? Perhaps the variety show will return yet....


vargas said...

Personally I would classify Lost and Heroes firmly in the science fiction camp.

Mercurie said...

Vargas, I tend to agree. Lost seems to be going further and further towards that genre as it goes along.

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Mikeachim said...

Well, I'd argue that Lost was scifi from day 1, but (a) it hid its credentials well, and (b) it's contributed to changing the TV landscape so well that 'scifi' means 'spaceships' a great deal less nowadays.

In fact, genre-bending is the great strength of modern TV. Battlestar Galactica is clearly traditional scifi, but with strong - occasionally dominant - elements of gritty, contemporary political and military drama.

Pushing Daisies
- I've seen the first episode and it's joyously brilliant - but what the hell is it? Fantasy-comedy-surrealism-drama-real-life-cartoon? As with all Bryan Fuller's work, it's beautifully unpigeonholeable.

The major fly in the ointment has been the kneejerk reaction of some of the networks to new shows, particularly Fox. If it's not getting good ratings within 4-5 episodes of a 13/26-ep season, they pull the plug. That's appallingly shortsighted. I hope in the wake of the Writer's Strike they treat their wordsmiths a bit better than they have in recent years.....

Mercurie said...

You're right, Mike, Fox does have a history of pulling the plug on interesting shows that aren't a hit in the ratings after only a few weeks on the air. The prime example in my mind is Firefly, a great show which they killed too soon. I guess we were lucky that they didn't kill The X-Files in its infancy. It got miserable ratings in its first season and yet somehow it survived!