Program Rivalries: Broadcast TV
In this time of confusion and erosion, network programming seemed more than ever reliant on definable demographic units rather than the broadest possible audience. Yet, having streamlined the shows to a few entertainment types, it was increasingly difficult for the networks to attract viewers by simply refashioning the comedy, crime, and conversation styles that survived the decades. By the 1980s, for example, TV had nurtured an entire generation of viewers without a taste for musical-variety shows and Westerns. When they did schedule musical fare, there was insufficient viewer interest in
Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters (fifty-sixth its first season, sixty-sixth in its second season) or
Dolly (fifty-ninth) to trigger a revival of the genre.
Even more off-target were Westerns. They were essentially a dead TV form since the early 1970s, but the networks attempted periodically to resurrect Westerns and ended up broadcasting some of the worst-received series—The Young Pioneers (ninety-third),
Young Maverick (eighty-eighth), Wildside (eighty-second), and
Paradise (seventy-eighth)—of their seasons.
In general, the first hour of prime time was surrendered to youngsters and parents looking for "family" shows to share with their offspring. Here was a domain of precocious children, understanding parents, cute people, angels, and cuddly toys that talked. With programs such as
Head of the Class, The Cosby Show, A Different World, and Growing Pains, youthful viewers made hits out of series highlighting youngsters and their antics. From such shows emerged a galaxy of TV stars especially pleasing to young people, among them Michael J. Fox and Justine Bateman of
Family Ties, Ricky Schroeder of Silver Spoons, Tony Danza in
Who's the Boss? and Emmanuel Lewis in Webster.
But viewers of early prime time also accepted oldster Michael Landon as an angelic visitor and an extraterrestrial, Alf, as a visiting alien. Even in the violence-prone adventure shows aired at this time, audience favorites were confined to exaggerated, comic-book heroics in the likes of
Knight Rider, The A Team, Airwolf, and The Dukes of Hazzard.
But television also served another audience segment: the aging viewer. Above all, the reality of a graying society was recognizable in a respect for the economic-strength attractiveness of older Americans . Where the advertising industry for years had sought eighteen-to-fortynine-year-olds as its prized audience, the range was expanded in the 1980s to age fifty-four. Programs pitched at this group included tales of reinvigorated youth on
The Love Boat and the achievement of lost dreams on Fantasy Island. On
The Golden Girls it was three mature women, sexy and self-sufficient, and unwilling to retire to their rocking chairs.
Although the mature viewer may have developed a wide range of interests while passing through life, network TV did not program to those traits—advertisers would spend only so much money attracting the middle-aged and older. Instead, in another variation on the theme of lost youth, programmers exploited nostalgia by hiring vintage movie stars for guest appearances. Such casting had made
The Love Boat and Fantasy Island popular, but the most successful manipulator of the technique was
Murder, She Wrote, which specialized in stars of the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1987-1988 season, for instance, this detective series featured film legends such as Janet Leigh, Eddie Albert, Dorothy Lamour, Ruth Roman, Gloria DeHaven, Kathryn Grayson, Claire Trevor, Gisele Mackenzie, and Julie Adams. That the star of the series, Angela Lansbury, began her adult film career in 1944 only reinforced the maturity reflected in its casting.
For those chronologically in middle age, situation comedies such as Cheers and
Taxi offered no concessions to children. And via series such as China Beach and
Tour of Duty, aimed at adults' memories of the Vietnam War, and The Wonder Years and thirty-something, aimed at the memories of childhood and the realities of midlife, the networks sought the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and the mid-1960s who had transformed TV and civility while passing through youth, and who remained numerically large and financially influential as they now entered middle age.
The appeal to adult tastes was not confined to network prime time. Reality-based talk shows, particularly prevalent in first-run syndication, brought adult topicality to the weekday audience. Sometimes poignantly but more often in an exploitative and tawdry manner, long-standing video taboos against sexual frankness were broken on
The Oprah Winfrey Show, Donahue, and Geraldo. TV with the gossipy values of supermarket tabloids appeared in
A Current Affair on Fox and on the syndicated shows Inside Edition and
In a related format, the role of television as a promoter of constructive public debate also gave way to the hyperbole and bombast of show business. Adopting now the rhetorical style of wrestler Hulk Hogan, men with distinguished records in public service and journalism verbally lashed at one another on
The Capital Gang on CNN, The McLaughlin Group on PBS, and the syndicated
Morton Downey, Jr., Show.
In crime programming, too, new levels of theatrical directness were realized. In America's Most Wanted and
Unsolved Mysteries viewers became involved in solving horrible crimes, and in the Fox actuality series Cops, audiences traveled with real police officers on evening patrols. Less flamboyant, but targeted nonetheless for adult segments, were "reality-based" legal series such as
The People's Court, Superior Court, Divorce Court, and Arthur Miller's Court, where viewers vicariously joined professionals in resolving legal issues and actual courtroom cases.
Programmers also found in the soap opera a mix of romantic melodrama, suspense, and lusty characterization that gripped prime-time audiences for more than a decade. The show that set the pace for the genre was
Dallas, which premiered in 1978. Here millionaire oilman J. R. Ewing and his cohorts populated a grownup world of tycoons, their sexy women, and intriguing adventures. In manipulating its stereotypical Texans made rich in the business of petroleum,
Dallas exploited a powerful social ethos growing in the United States in the age of political conservatism. The narcissism and materialism that found fertile ground in the "me decade" and that achieved its full stature in the economic climate of the 1980s made the program a primer on attaining and maintaining success. To David Jacobs, the executive producer of
Knots Landing, the stories of greed and glamour seemed to fit the times. As he noted at the end of the decade, "I think for a while during the Reagan years it was OK to be ostentatiously wealthy and glitzy."
Dallas was the first adult serial to lead the prime-time ratings. But the attraction of the series proved impermanent. "I don't think of it as erosion of a genre. A show sometimes just gets old and tired," explained Jacobs. Table 11.1 demonstrates the familiar pattern of a programming fad: rising quickly, remaining popular through several seasons, then declining precipitously.
Rankings for Dallas,
| 1979|| 39|| 18.4|
| 1980|| 5|| 25.0|
| 1981 || 1 || 31.8|
| 1982 || 1 || 28.4|
|1983|| 2|| 24.6|
| 1984|| 1|| 25.7|
| 1985 || 2|| 24.7|
| 1986|| 7 ||21.8|
| 1987|| 11 || 21.3|
| 1988|| 22|| 16.8|
| 1989|| 31|| 15.4|
| 1990|| 55|| 12.4|
| 1991|| 62|| 10.8|
As expected, the success of Dallas prompted imitation. By the mid-1980s there were several other evening soap operas with villains and pure hearts struggling for wealth, power, and romance—and a decent share of the adult audience. Among this imitative second generation were
Knots Landing, Dynasty and Dynasty II—The Colbys, Flamingo Road, The Yellow Rose, Falcon Crest, From Here to Eternity, and
Emerald Point, NAS.
These soaps offered melodrama not seen regularly in prime time since Peyton Place had appeared two and three evenings a week in the 1960s. American adults, many nurtured on daytime soaps, now found the evening variety seductive. In the peak season for this type of programming, 1984-1985, four evening serials—Dynasty (first),
Dallas (second), Knots Landing (ninth), and
Falcon Crest (tenth)—ended the year among the top ten.
In this decade of segmented scheduling, one of the more important developments was the renewed appeal by network TV to African-Americans. It was not the first time the entertainment industry had sought to arrest a downward spiral by approaching blacks. During the 1970s the boom in black exploitation feature films helped rescue a collapsing U.S. movie industry. The TV networks now turned to black viewers to bolster sagging primetime ratings.
Broadcasting had always been comfortable with racial stereotyping, whether
it was the abrasive representations so abundant in the 1950s or the subtler
stylizations of the 1970s. Chronically missing from network TV was a
consistently respectful and realistic depiction of African-Americans.
Ironically, prime-time TV had a positive precedent to follow: by the 1970s
daytime soap operas such as All My Children and General Hospital
were involving black dramatic characters who were free from traditional
stereotyping. Although the programmers faced criticism from whites
uncomfortable with such imagery, the nature of the genre—plus the fact that
black viewers constituted about one-quarter of the audience for soaps—stiffened the resolve to introduce African-Americans into popular daytime serials.
By the 1980s, however, blacks entered the heroic urban professions so familiar in prime time—police, doctors, lawyers—appearing as strong characters in dramas such as
Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and L.A. Law. But it was with
The Cosby Show that network TV finally realized the potential of positive black imagery. Commencing in 1984, this situation comedy featured Bill Cosby as Dr. Cliff Huxtable, obstetrician, husband of a successful lawyer, and father of five distinctive children. The series demonstrated that successful programs need not recapitulate racist notions of how African-Americans acted, nor limit the number of blacks onscreen in order to sustain the myth that significant American life was lily-white.
There had been earlier examples of positive representation. All of the products with which Bill Cosby had been associated—I Spy, The Bill Cosby Show, The New Bill Cosby Show, Cos—eschewed racist stereotyping.
Benson moved in this direction when Robert Guillaume was permitted in 1981 to trade his butler's position for that of state budget director. Still,
The Cosby Show was unique. Here, for the first time, network TV offered a black nuclear family that was believably human—where parents nurtured their children, and children loved their mother and father and related with each other respectfully; where audiences laughed with the wittiness, not at the pejorative tomfoolery, of its leading characters. The long-overdue model worked, becoming the leading program throughout the last half of the decade, sparking a renaissance of the sitcom genre and precipitating a business turnaround that soon made NBC the premier operation in national television.
The Cosby Show fostered not only imitation but also enhancement of African-American imagery. By the second half of the decade, the networks presented distinguished depictions of blacks in comedies such as Charlie & Co., 227, Amen!, A Different World, The Robert Guillaume Show, and Frank's Place. More than simply placing black characters in "white-middle-class" situations, several of these series offered African-Americans operating within "black" contexts.
The people on 227 lived and interrelated in a working-class environment. Hal Williams as husband and father arrived home from work carrying the black lunch can familiar to laboring Americans. And he returned to an African-American universe: an apartment building filled with black neighbors offering no concessions to affirmative-action casting quotas and no demeaning presentation of its urban characters. Similarly unfamiliar was the environment of
Amen! Its comedic cast operated in and about a church without whites.
Frank's Place not only depicted the offbeat denizens of the Chez Louisiana restaurant, a New Orleans eatery owned by a black man, it also wove themes from African-American folk culture into its "dramedy"—partly drama, partly comedy—story lines.
These series were stereotypical only in that they were scarce and perpetuated the tradition of black comedians working to make white audiences laugh. But their appeal to black sensibilities was bolder than in the past. They were programs where whites were certainly welcomed, even desired, as viewers and vicarious participants; but these shows were not shaped to fit familiar projections of black life. Coming after years in the mid-1980s when Mr. T ran amok as B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus on
The A-Team, such series offered an image of African-American humanity that was considerably more calm and realistic.
Still, this was no projection of the authentic African-America, and, in fact, it may have been deleterious in the happy picture it projected of the black condition. In a stinging report issued in the summer of 1989, the National Commission for Working Women of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) concluded that "Real-world racism, which is pervasive, subtle, and blatant, is commonplace in America but virtually invisible on entertainment television." The commission found that more than 90 percent of the minorities on TV—almost all of them blacks—were middle-class and rich, and less than 10 percent were working-class or poor; and that 75 percent of all minority females were on comedies. Moreover, the TV world misleadingly projected racial harmony and an egalitarian workplace; here, too, injustice was always a matter of individual immorality, never the result of oppressive social structures.
However limited, improved treatment of blacks on TV did not proceed from any moral conversion among the Caucasian males who dominated the executive leadership of network TV. In fact, the WOW report indicated that even on shows featuring blacks, 93 percent of the producers were white. Motivation for the new imagery existed overwhelmingly in the need to tap narrow segments of the audience.
Although blacks constituted less than 12 percent of the U.S. population, statistics proved that on a per capita basis they watched more TV than whites. And racial viewership patterns affected overall ratings. Nielsen reports in 1985 and 1986 substantiated that African-American households each day used video 40 percent more than other TV homes. By early 1988 black households watched television an average of 10.6 hours daily, while others watched an average of 7.3 hours daily. African-Americans were also more loyal to the networks, viewing national shows at a rate 80 percent higher than other households in the daytime and 19 percent higher in prime time.'
Here was a marriage of needs that had been chronically resisted by the industry. With discernible tastes that did not always match those of the white viewership, black audiences responded well to shows featuring black characters. Advertisers also needed effective programs through which to reach the multibillion-dollar African-American consumer market, a socioeconomic reality that in the 1980s was wealthier and more populated than most nation-states in the world. As illustrated in Table 11.2, black viewers definitely had their own tastes in programming.
Viewing Differences by Racial Households,
|Program || Black|
|The Cosby Show||1||1|
|227 || 4 ||16|
|Facts of Life|| 6||26|
|Hunter || 9 ||46|
|Charlie & Co.||12||75|
|Murder, She Wrote||25|| 3|
|60 Minutes ||32 ||4|
|Dallas ||52 || 7|
|Who’s the Boss?||54|| 9|
|Newhart ||59 ||12|
But a large or a small black response could strongly affect a TV series in terms of its rating and relative rank, figures helpful in terms of present and future profitability. The statistics in Table 11.3 demonstrate how the fate of some programs in 1988 was reflected in their acceptance or rejection by the African-American audience.
Rating/Ranking Differences by Racial Households,
|Program || Blacks ||Others || Cumulative|
|A Different World || 46.6/1 || 22.4/4 || 25.0/2|
|227 || 35.1/5 || 14.8/31 || 16.9/22|
|Knots Landing|| 24.3/9 || 15.4/29 || 16.4/25 |
|Growing Pains ||21.0/17 || 22.9/3 || 22.7/5|
|My Two Dads ||16.4/38 || 16.7/20 || 16.7/24|
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