Friday, March 1, 2019

The De-Valuation of Television

‘Last Call With Carson Daly’ to End NBC Run After Nearly Two Decades’

I was shocked by that headline in Variety. Not because the show was ending, but to learn that it had been on that long. Has it really been 17 years? I still think of Daly as the guy who played Britney Spears videos on MTV.

It’s amazing to me how many network shows (like that one) have been on 5-10 years or more, and I’ve never watched an episode of any of them. Same with the new shows that seemingly debut every week on Hulu and Netflix and other services.

Obviously I spend more time than most watching older shows, so it’s not surprising that I would not be aware of many current series. But I have a feeling I’m not alone. 

In fact, I’m pretty certain that hundreds of television shows have debuted and disappeared over the past 20 years, with the majority of the country unaware of their existence.

These include critically acclaimed series like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, winner of eight Emmys, plus Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards. According to Nielsen, that series averaged 1.9 million viewers per episode. That is 0.57% of the U.S. population.

Imagine what would happen if someone made a reference to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel at a party or a business meeting: what is the likelihood that those in attendance would get it? And that’s a current show – what if someone made that reference 20 years from now? 

For most of its history that’s not how television worked. While there have always been movies, plays and books that went virtually unnoticed, television was different because all of it emanated from a single source, located in almost every home in America. Within that source there were just three national networks and a few local stations, so programming options were limited. We were all watching the same stuff.

That’s why references to popular shows from the 1950s through the early1980s are still fairly common. It’s why generations of tourists who booked cruises thought about The Love Boat as they began their trips; it’s why an overzealous cop might still be labeled a Barney Fife; it’s why Fuller House in 2018 could do a riff on Charlie’s Angels knowing most of its audience would be in on the jokes. 

You see the outpouring of sadness that followed the passing of Peter Tork, who starred on a series that debuted 50 years ago and lasted just two seasons. Sure, there was a musical component to The Monkees that increased its pop culture profile, but the television show was the catalyst for those million-selling records. 

I just finished writing an article on Hee Haw that will be published in a magazine this summer. Maybe you loved the show, maybe you hated it, but you know what it is.

That’s what TV used to be. It was good or bad, but never invisible. It was prominent. It was important. It was arguably the primary source of entertainment and information for three generations of people throughout the western world. 

Today television creates more shows than ever, but its impact on our culture is fleeting. It’s sad to think that quality shows are being missed by 99% of the country. And given the sheer volume of them, and the rapidity with which they come and go, we are at a point I never thought I’d see: a television series has been reduced to the impact of a YouTube video. It’s holds your interest for a few seconds, and then it disappears from the memory.

I know I’ve written about this before. But I think it’s a topic that is worth exploring more than once. It’s not every day that a major communication medium delivers more content than at any time in its history, while simultaneously becoming less relevant. I’d say that’s not a trend that bodes well for the future. 


  1. You're right, even 20-30 years ago you could walk into your office and ask "What'd you watch last night?" and even if only a third of you watched say, ER, everybody else in the room knew about it.

    On the other hand, if you're the type of person who watches Marvelous Ms. Mazel, with everybody's social groups shrinking to people who are just like them, the odds are pretty good that everybody at your party had watched or heard of it, but have never seen or heard of say, 13 Reasons Why which every high school girl is watching on repeat.

    Strange world.

  2. So true. I remember loving that "Still the One" ABC commercial and looking forward each fall to the new season. Not to mention talking with schoolmates the next day about what we saw on "Happy Days" or "Welcome Back Kotter".

    Now, even with the shows I like on TV there's no big fanfare for the new season, which comes in with barely a blip, lasts a few weeks, then quickly goes on hiatus. By the time new episodes come on, I've lost interest. And the crowd of people I can talk to about them gets smaller and smaller. It's just one of the many facets of modern life which is kind of depressing.

  3. Mr. Hofstede, what do you have to say about the short-lived cop series "Lady Blue" (1985-86), "Most Wanted" (1976-77), and "Strike Force" (1981-82)? The latter two shows starred Robert Stack. I recently bought the "Most Wanted" DVD set.

    Eileen Davidson, an actress known for her work on daytime soap operas, was a regular on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" from 2014 to 2017. That show may have gained Eileen more personal fame than her soaps ever did, but she had a significantly larger audience in the United States during her initial (1982-88) stint as Ashley Abbott on "The Young and the Restless." Heck, there's no doubt in my mind that more Americans watched Eileen on her short-lived crime show "Broken Badges" (1990-91) than watched her on "RHOBH."

  4. Spot on, David. I feel the same way about movies; I was watching clips of old Oscarcasts last week in lieu of the actual show (unlike you, I didn't have the stomach to watch even a minute of it). So many of those movies were household names; I haven't even heard of many of the movies from the last few years.