The good old days …

I’ve been watching a lot of older shows lately. Shows from a time when we didn’t have the 3533 channels that we can find on cable and satellite systems, and when the idea of a streaming service was something that you’d probably associate with fishing. And while watching those shows, a difference between those days and today struck me.

In those days, even with cable ramping up and there being more channels, the networks were king. And depending on where you were, you might be able to get something like three or four major networks … and if you didn’t have cable, you might not even be able to get all of them over-the-air all the time, especially if you were outside a major city. And if you were outside of a major city, you had no chance of getting cable. I lived outside of a major city/town, and the only time I had access to cable was when I went to stay with my grandparents. And they had, for the longest time, a TV that could only select 13 channels. So, for the most part, most of the best TV was on three or four channels, and that’s all that people could watch.

What this meant was that networks in the prime TV watching time wanted shows that appealed to as broad an audience as possible. Saturday mornings were generally given over to cartoons, and after the watershed hour they would aim at adults, but in “prime time” you really needed to have general appeal. So you needed a show that parents would let their kids watch, but would also be willing to watch themselves. And if you look at shows like “Buck Rogers”, “Charlie’s Angels”, and others, these tended to be shows that mixed some mild action, drama and comedy in with a bit of sex appeal for the adults to provide a show that the whole family could sit down and watch. These were mixed in with relatively safe sitcoms like “Family Ties” and “Growing Pains” that explicitly provided characters that pretty much everyone in the family could relate to in some way.

I don’t think this is true for more modern shows, although I’m not an expert. But you can compare the original Battlestar Galactica series to its reboot, and note that while parents wouldn’t have any problem with their kids watching the original, they almost certainly wouldn’t let at least younger children watch the reboot. It just wasn’t made for them. It’s also hard for me to think of a modern sitcom that the entire family could sit down and watch, although again I admit that I’m not up on modern sitcoms. But you can compare early Simpsons with later Family Guy, for example, and see that the latter would never have been considered mainstream back then.

I think the expansion of channels allows for this, as it allows for creators to make shows aimed more at specific audiences but still be able to attain an audience. We’ve expanded the number of channels and the number of devices, so you don’t have to find a show that everyone will watched. At most when I was growing up, there were two TVs in the house, and one of the reasons we had two was because I was the only person in my family who liked to watch sports, so a small, portable TV let me watch that while everyone else could watch something else. Now, there are multiple TVs and with streaming services you can use more of the devices that everyone has. Also, that allows for a broader audience than just a household and so you can appeal to individuals to get your ratings. This solves one issue the old model had which was … if different people wanted to watch different things you had to compromise. Now, some of them can just go watch what they want to watch somewhere or on something else.

There are good points and bad points to this. Being able to focus on a narrower audience doesn’t force compromises as much and so, in theory, can lead to a better overall work. However, I think this might be what’s causing my impression that modern shows just aren’t in general fun anymore (again, compare the Battlestar Galacticas). You can make the shows deeper and more complex if you don’t have to worry about keeping everyone in the loop, but that tends to sap the fun from the show. The compromise-driven, family-friendly shows really had to focus on being entertaining, since that sort of thing would appeal to everyone. And the one thing that I notice when I move between older and modern shows is that I almost always have fun with the older shows, and don’t have that anywhere near as often with the more modern shows (even if I enjoy them).

Still, I don’t watch as many modern shows as others, and my viewing of older shows suffers from some selection bias. Are my observations reasonable, or am I just missing the point?

2 Responses to “The good old days …”

  1. Tom Says:

    Well, a lot of the best shows today are not necessarily what you would call family-friendly (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones). I think this is just part of what happens when you introduce cable and pay-per-view…it becomes all about the niche. We’ve gotten the same effect with news (CNN versus FOX, etc.)

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, that was kinda my point: with the expansion of channels and devices, you can make shows that appeal to specific audiences and not generically anymore. Although there were always some not family friendly shows that showed up after the watershed, which is probably where those two shows would have naturally fit anyway.

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