Saturday, December 26, 2015

Five Things TV Used to Do That it Doesn’t Do Anymore

We’ve arrived at the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. If you’re a kid you’re off from school and if you’re a lucky adult like me you are enjoying a few days off from work. It’s a chance to rest up and celebrate surviving one more turn of the calendar, before diving back into your normal routine.

For many of us television is a treasured part of that routine, albeit one that has changed dramatically since we were still in the school vacation phase of our lives. There once were moments, now long gone, that we relied on and awaited with anticipation, and other elements of the programming day that, while not exciting in themselves, were reminders of the medium’s familiarity and constancy.

Here are some that I miss the most.

1. New Soaps on Holidays
For decades, while other programs were pre-empted on holidays, you could still see a new episode of your favorite daytime drama. Given the close relationships viewers developed with the characters on these stalwart series, watching their holiday traditions became part of many annual celebrations.

For General Hospital fans like me, that meant wondering what disaster would befall Thanksgiving dinner at the Quartermaine residence, prompting the family to call for pizza delivery. And on Christmas Day, Dr. Steve Hardy (John Beradino) would read the story of the first Christmas to young patients in the children’s ward. 

After Beradino’s passing, the task was bestowed on other members of the senior hospital staff, and you could see in both the character and the actor how they recognized the privilege of carrying on this revered tradition.

Now, the few soaps that remain air reruns on holidays. Just what we need – another hour when we have to talk to our relatives.

2. Network Sign-ons/Sign-offs
There was a time when television networks ended their broadcast days at 1 or 2 a.m., returning the next morning around sunrise. Local affiliates would sometimes get the ball rolling with a sermonette, or by playing the National Anthem before the first network morning show. Night owls like me can still recall the various sign-offs, followed by a test pattern.

Changing viewing habits, cable TV and the infomercial all played a role in prompting stations to broadcast 24/7. But I remember being in London in the late 1980s, a time when these quaint customs were already disappearing in the U.S., and being unexpectedly delighted to find the sign-off still in use at the BBC, executed with typical British aplomb. 

3. No Winter Breaks
If there is one phrase that rankles the veteran Comfort TV fan it is “winter finale.”

What constitutes a “season” for a show today? For some cable series it’s 8 or 12 episodes. Most network series manage to reach 22 shows, necessitating a holiday season hiatus that may last a month or more. Contrast that with some typical first seasons from the classic TV era:

Leave it to Beaver:                  39 episodes
The Donna Reed Show:          37 episodes
Gunsmoke:                             39 episodes
Naked City:                            39 episodes
Bewitched:                             36 episodes
The Twilight Zone:                  36 episodes
Ozzie & Harriet:                     39 episodes

Today’s television actors, writers, directors and creative teams earn many times what their classic TV counterparts did, for doing a lot less work. 

4. A Sense of Propriety in Commercials
Commercial interruptions are never not annoying, but they don’t have to make you queasy or generate uncomfortable questions from kids about what the man in the bathtub means by erectile dysfunction. I know that just by using the word ‘propriety’ I risk derisive comparison to the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey. But I don’t care if I am the last person in America who thinks that some topics are best left between one’s self and one’s doctor. I just want to watch Gilligan try to get off the island – I don’t want to hear about your vaginal yeast infection. 

5. Fall Season Musical Promos
Excitement still accompanies the arrival of fresh network TV episodes every September, though these days summer offers a supplemental season of new alternative programming that makes the wait easier.

But in the Comfort TV era the new fall season was a much bigger event, heralded by the networks with extravagant promotions featuring all of their top stars. The setup often consisted of actors from established shows welcoming newcomers to the team. There was a sense of company pride in these spots, that also promoted a familial relationship between network and viewer. Look, we thought, at all these rich and famous people, taking time out of their busy schedule to invite us to watch their shows.

If you’re old enough you may still remember some of these musical campaigns: “You and Me and ABC,” “NBC Just Watch Us Now” and CBS’s “Looking Good.” I always enjoyed the ABC promos the most, from “Still the One” to “Come on Along with ABC.” They were the top dog network at the time these promos were in vogue, and were happy to invest the time and money to keep it that way. The days of presentations like this are certainly gone forever.


  1. "Santa Barbara," a daytime serial which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1993, was always pre-empted on Thanksgiving Day. However, the network tended to air new episodes of the soap on Christmas Day during the 1984-89 period.

  2. True, Thanksgiving caused more schedule issues because of football, parades, etc. But they were not so quick to take the day off as they do now.

    1. Believe it or not, Mr. Hofstede, a new episode of "Days of our Lives" aired on December 25, 2015.

  3. Only Jeopardy! (syndicated) and The Price Is Right (CBS) even reach that level today. Price goes 38 weeks (190 shows) but takes time off on Christmas and New Year's (with Christmas Eve the last show, then the Best of the Year sometime the week after Christmas) with the show running from September to June, with spot shows for Independence Day and Back to School (although last season, Back to School was for teachers and in September unlike the past when it was for students in August; the Halloween show, Beach Party, aired in August (it was taped at the end of the season to replace the cancelled Halloween show caused by Drew's injury)), and Jeopardy! is a 46-week show.

    1. All true, and of course game shows have the advantage of taping multiple shows in a single day.

  4. Did we really need the preening Anglophile "in the US, these quaint customs were disappearing, but in London they really know how to appreciate things more than Americans. Except beating Americans in a war. Or inventing television. Or providing GB with a lot of its prime time programming. Or beating the Americans in a World Cup match. Or..."

  5. We had no idea at the time but thanks to the internet we now know that many of the glossy new season slogans that Australia had in the '70s, '80s and '90s were adapted from the US. "Let Us Be The One", "We're The One" and "Still The One" were among the first. In fact "Still The One" was still being used in various forms and styles in Australia until about a decade ago.

    "Come On Along", "Looking Good", "Reach For The Stars", "Let's All Be There", "Be There", "Only The Best", "Just Watch Us Now", "You'll Love It", "It's On (Fox)" and the "Hello " jingles were all adapted by various networks and stations in Australia, no matter how awkwardly they adapted to Australian network brands: "NBC The Place To Be" became "Seven's Me! The Place To Be". Ugh!

    We just didn't know their origin back then. Now thanks to the internet and YouTube we know too well!

    1. That's fascinating - I look forward to checking out some of the Aussie versions on YouTube. Thanks for letting me know!

    2. If you can't find any on YouTube let me know and I'll point you in the right direction :)

  6. I think you missed one:
    6. Entertain people.
    Yes, there's 2 shows I watch and enjoy today, but that's nothing compared to the plethora of classic TV shows I enjoyed in my youth.

  7. Dear God, did you hit it on the head with 3 and 4. I realize that television is more expensive to produce but the breaks have gotten ridiculous. And you are definitely not the last person in America that feels as you do on #4. I would add a 4.b.- A Sense of Propriety in Television Show Content - as well. In the last few years I've seen stuff on tv that was just sleazy... and I"m not even talking cable.

  8. I actually read somewhere recently that the American Medical Association is seeking a ban on prescription drug commercials - so perhaps our prayers will soon be answered. But that won't do much for the programs between the commercials.

  9. I have the all-in-one DVD of one 50s series that had 40 episodes in one of its seasons: that being M Squad, the classic NBC half-hour detective series w/the great, late Lee Marvin (that one had 40 on its second go, 1958-59 [38 for 1957-58, and 39 for the final one, 1959-60]).