Birth of Television to The Dawn of Networks (1800s-1939)
“ I thought they were pulling my leg when they said that one of these days, pictures are going to be flying through the air – you’ll be able to see radio.”
HAL KANTER, Comedy Writer
Television was never one person's vision -- as early as the 1820s, the idea began to germinate. Certainly by 1880, when a speculative article appeared in The Scientific American magazine, the concept of a working television system began to spread on an international scale.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were a few American laboratories leading the way: Bell, RCA, and GE. It wasn't until 1927, when 21-year-old Philo T. Farnsworth, beat everyone to the punch by producing the first electronic television picture. This historic breakthrough catapulted him into a decades-long patent battle against major corporations, including RCA and CBS. The battle took its toll on everyone and RCA’s David Sarnoff brilliantly marketed this invention to the public and became known as the father of television -- while Philo T. Farnsworth died in relative obscurity.
Experimental broadcast television began in the early 1930s, transmitting fuzzy images of wrestling, music and dance to a handful of screen. It wasn't until the 1939 World's Fair in New York, where RCA unveiled their new NBC TV studios in Rockefeller Plaza, that network television was introduced. A few months later, William Paley’s CBS began broadcasting from its new TV studios in Grand Central Station.
Now that television worked, how could these networks profit on their investment? Who would create the programming that would sell their TV sets? How would they dominate this new commercial medium, without destroying their hugely profitable radio divisions?
Ready! Sets! Go! (1940s)
“We had a rating of 80, a share of 83.9. Of course I used to say there were only 83 sets, but there weren't.”
MILTON BERLE, host Texaco Star Theatre
Four months after NBC station W2XBS began regular programming in 1939, Red Barber announced the first televised major league baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Even though television was still considered a fad, throughout the 1940s, the deep-pocketed television divisions of NBC and CBS -- and soon ABC – cashed in on the tastes of the American public. Networks expanded their reach as key cities built broadcast facilities.
Television showed signs of becoming a commercial success, at least until the US entered World War II. The war interrupted its growth significantly, as personnel shortages forced stations to shut down. Only the DuMont network remained on the air.
It wasn't until 1947 that television’s growth truly exploded. Some of the biggest shows premiered including: The Ed Sullivan Show, Candid Camera, Howdy Doody, Philco Playhouse, and Kukla, Fran & Ollie. Meet the Press began broadcasting out of the nation's capitol to become the longest-running news program ever.
Perhaps the brightest star of the era was Milton Berle, “America’s favorite uncle.” Berle brought his vaudeville sensibilities to NBC’s Texaco Star Theatre and made it an unprecedented success. City water levels dropped during commercials, stores closed early. Television set sales skyrocketed.
As networks raced to provide content for the popular new medium, many radio stars and shows attempted to make the transition to television -- Burns and Allen, The Jack Benny Program, The Shadow, Fred Allen, and Fibber McGee and Molly.
Television News Finds Its Way (1950s)
“None of us had any ax to grind, none of us had any political ambitions. Our only real purpose in life, and in work, was to tell people what we knew to be true.”
DAVID BRINKLEY, News anchor
In 1949, a young girl named Kathy Fiscus fell into a Los Angeles-area well. Television provided continuous local coverage for over 27 hours. The unfolding tragedy proved that live television news coverage could not only inform, but also unite a community.
At the dawn of the 1950s, with over seven million TV sets in circulation, the need to broadcast fresh news images was magnified. The networks had initially offered short newscasts peppered with filmed newsreel footage – but that didn’t last long. Those who had built their careers in radio news ultimately provided television network news expansion. CBS News in particular established a protocol for television reporting - airing stories about topical, political and worldwide events that impacted its viewers. Plus, each night, viewers could see the newsmen they had trusted for years.
One of the biggest national concerns of the decade, along with the Korean War, involved The Cold War and the national fear of communist infiltration. Senator Joseph McCarthy used his “Red scare” tactics to ferret out communism on every level. The networks were not immune to scrutiny – in fact, to keep in good graces with sponsors, they often enforced blacklists within their ranks.
On a Sunday night in 1954, Murrow and his associates put their careers on the line to take on Senator McCarthy. The See It Now broadcast turned the tables on the Senator and acted as a political mallet. The indecency of McCarthy was further exposed when ABC and DuMont aired gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1955.
There was another bright spot in the development of network news programs. In 1951, NBC programming head Pat Weaver conceived Today as a news and entertainment wake-up show called Rise and Shine. It worked for the ratings. But the events that loomed on the horizon in the 1950s made the show into one of the most important news programs ever produced by that network.
As the decade closed, the television industry was hit again with the quiz show scandals. The $64,000 Question, made its debut in 1955 and within a month had turned television on its ear. The opportunity to see everyday people win enormous cash prizes pushed that show past I Love Lucy and Ed Sullivan to become number one in the ratings. Other quiz and game shows followed the craze. It wasn't until Charles Van Doren won $129,000 on Twenty-One, defeating Herbert Stempel, that the machinations behind quiz shows were exposed. Van Doren was disgraced when it was revealed that he and other contestants were given answers in advance. The scandals caused viewers to question television practices, and it prompted the networks to take responsibility, and ultimately control, of their programming.
Instances like the Blacklist and the quiz show scandals placed the television news divisions in awkward positions – they had the delicate task of exposing their own networks’ dirty laundry. It was through the integrity of the broadcasters that television news survived virtually unscathed and was seen as a trusted, objective source.
Storytellers to a Nation (1950s Entertainment)
“There was gold dust in the air.”
TAD MOSEL, Live Drama Writer
Now that television had proved itself, the linking of both coasts by coaxial cable in 1951 meant that the same programs could be seen simultaneously nationwide. The new challenge was to feed a program-hungry nation. Television devoured more material than radio and motion pictures had ever done, and it was up to writers, performers, producers and directors to keep the ideas coming.
LIVE DRAMA: First as children of the Depression, then as war heroes, they followed their dreams via the GI Bill to attend the colleges of their choice. As students of theatre, they were in the right place at the right time when television was in its infancy. Live drama showrunners like Fred Coe, Worthington Minor and Martin Manulis. Writers like Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Tad Mosel, Horton Foote, JP Miller and Reginald Rose. Directors like John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and Arthur Penn. Actors like Rod Steiger, Paul Newman, Kim Hunter, E.G. Marshall, Jack Lemmon, Angela Lansbury, and James Dean.
We will highlight the live television anthologies and explore the reasons why their era earned the moniker “The Golden Age of Television.” It will explore the challenges of presenting a live production using the emerging technology of television, and explore the influence of business interests on the creative process.
COMEDY: Individuals from vastly different backgrounds, family trades, cultural heritages and varying interests came together and figured out how to make television work. They were curious, talented, brilliant, and determined to do something…really funny.
As the decade took hold, the vaudevillian antics of the 1940s television gave way to more sophisticated sketch and variety comedy, and ultimately, sitcoms. NBC’s Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, was a prime example of the new variety trend. Plus, due to coaxial cable, unknown comedians from local stations showcased themselves to larger audiences. Philadelphia's favorite comedian Ernie Kovacs’ zany mischief, as well as Chicago-based shows including Stud's Place and Garroway at Large found new audiences.
As film studios relaxed their restrictions on their stars appearing on television, production moved west. With the premiere of CBS’ I Love Lucy and the subsequent rise of Desilu, situation comedies came to the forefront. In fact, on January 19, 1953, history was made as over 44 million Lucy fans tuned in to watch Little Ricky's birth.
Some of the programs of the era include:
All Star Revue
Burns and Allen
Colgate Comedy Hour
Father Knows Best
I Love Lucy
The Jack Benny Program
Leave it to Beaver
Make Room for Daddy
The Milton Berle Show
Your Show of Shows
FILMED DRAMA: Filmed shows began to replace live programming starting in the mid-1950s. The use of filmed drama increased the scope of expression of television, including many popular police, courtroom, hospital and mystery series. Suddenly the camera could change point of view or leave the studio, close-ups could be shot separately, and new stories could be told with budget as the only restraint. It also made syndication a viable option for independent producers, including the "father of syndication," Fred Ziv.
Early on, Hollywood motion picture studios usually refused to enter television. The tables turned when ABC’s Leonard Goldenson invested $500,000 into the completion of Walt Disney’s cash-strapped Disneyland, in exchange for Disney programming for ABC. In 1954, ABC premiered Davy Crockett, which became a goldmine and proved that television and studio collaborations could work.
In daytime programming, although advertising was gaining momentum, writer Irna Phillips had to personally fund her Guiding Light pilot, because Procter & Gamble claimed that soap operas would never work on TV. They came aboard soon after. Guiding Light recently celebrated its 65th anniversary.
On the darker side, television entertainment divisions did not escape the "Red Scare" and McCarthyism. Government regulators forced CBS to instituted a loyalty oath that it required all employees to sign. The Blacklist permeated all aspects of the industry, and many lives and careers were ruined by it.
Television News Come of Age (1960s News)
“I went to CBS and said, in all those minutes of entertainment, couldn't you find 60 minutes of some kind of newsmagazine?”
DON HEWITT, 60 Minutes Executive Producer
By 1960, one third of all network programs were taped, a third were filmed, and the remaining shows were produced live. One vital example of the continued value of live television was the “Great Debate” between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Many believe it changed presidential politics forever – as it handed the presidency to John Kennedy.
Technologically, 1962 was perhaps the watershed year for TV news: the Telstar and Relay satellites were launched. By 1963, those 15-minute news wrap-ups were now half-hour broadcasts featuring satellite images from around the globe.
The field of long-form documentaries hit home in this decade. Many not only received critical acclaim, but also tested the political boundaries, reaching as high as the White House. They include, CBS Reports: Harvest of Shame, NBC’s series entitled White Paper, and The Tunnel, a documentary which showed German students escaping East Germany by tunneling under the Berlin Wall. Producer David Wolper had his first hits, The Race for Space, and The Making of a President. He also introduced the underwater world of Jacques Cousteau to television.
President Kennedy became the first U.S. President to embrace television as he invited cameras into his first press conference and allowed Jackie Kennedy to host a televised White House tour. But it was Kennedy's assassination, on November 22, 1963, that demonstrated the power of television, as all networks suspended entertainment programming for four days to cover the tragedy.
Other significant images were the 1963 televised footage of Civil Rights demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and fire hoses. This disturbing footage helped to validate the existence of the Civil Rights movement for the American public. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law the following year.
Considering the tumultuous events of the decade, trusted newsmen became a requirement for each of the networks as the acclaimed team of Huntley-Brinkley began reporting on NBC; Walter Cronkite began his reign as the anchor of the CBS Evening News; and in 1968, the landmark newsmagazine, 60 Minutes debuted.
In 1964, President Johnson addressed the television cameras for eight minutes. He told the American people that he had ordered an air strike against North Vietnamese bases in the Gulf of Tonkin. This signaled the beginning of the Vietnam War. It was not until 1968, when Walter Cronkite broadcast a negative report on the Vietnam War, that the consensus of America's involvement in the war changed. Television was the window through which the public saw their sons and daughters returning home in body bags. Cronkite’s criticism forced President Johnson to state that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the entire country. Johnson declined to run for re-election.
As coverage of the Vietnam War intensified, there was a bright spot in the news -- the Apollo 7 flight made the first televised transmission from space. Nine months later, in 1969, a worldwide audience witnessed Apollo 11's moon landing. As the words “…one small step for man” echoed through the airwaves, the world reveled in the moment.
Sports on television made huge strides during the early 1960s. The landmark Wide World of Sports debuted on ABC, conceived by Roone Arledge. Also during this period, the instant replay became a standard in sports broadcasting. Plus, ABC's major coverage of the 1964 Winter Olympics proved to networks and sponsors that the once-lackluster Games could produce significant revenue. By 1967, sports broadcasting joined the big leagues -- CBS and NBC agreed to simulcast Super Bowl One in color.
As news events unfolded daily, technology advancements continued to prove that large corporations were in for the long haul. In 1965, COMSAT became the first commercial communications satellite. The same year, Sony introduced the VCR to the public.
Also, at the beginning of the decade, FCC Chairman Newton Minow made headlines after he delivered a speech calling television a “vast wasteland.” Soon thereafter, because of his direct efforts, public television was born, as New York's Channel 13 was sold to educational broadcasters. By 1967, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established -- public television was here to stay.
“Mr. Ed, Dr. Kildare will see you in Room 222” (1960s Entertainment)
“Short hair, long hair, dove, hawk or right wing, left wing. Everything was extreme and we went to the other side, which was not being represented in network television, or any television.”
TOM SMOTHERS, performer
Now that television was no longer a seat-of-the-pants experiment, many more decisions were based in board rooms, rather than writers’ rooms. After the quiz show scandals of the late 1950s, television networks took production out of the hands of sponsors and became proactive in programming.
As television news broadcast the stories of the evolving Civil Rights movement, many racial barriers were broken in television entertainment. With a few exceptions including Amos 'n Andy and Beulah, television would continue to feature white Americans until the 1960s. Ossie Davis made an appearance on The Defenders and a black woman became one of June Taylor’s dancers for Jackie Gleason. Later in the decade, Julia would become one of the first programs to feature a progressive African-American title character – and I Spy would pair Bill Cosby with Robert Culp in starring roles.
The 1960s premiered some of the major series considered classic television today. It was also the decade that westerns and urban sitcoms flourished.
Some of the programs of the era include:
The Andy Griffith Show
The Beverly Hillbillies
The Bill Cosby Show
The Carol Burnett Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show
I Dream of Jeannie
The Man from UNCLE
The Outer Limits
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In
Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
The Twilight Zone
Wild, Wild West
Children’s television underwent its own revolution with the premieres of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street on PBS. These groundbreaking programs would hit their strides in the 1970s and become educational staples for years to come.
In animation produced for television, Hanna-Barbera introduced Scooby-Doo Where Are You? and the prime-time series, The Flintstones. Meanwhile, Jay Ward produced the irreverent Rocky and Bullwinkle. And probably one of the strangest productions to come out of 1960s kids’ television was Sid and Marty Krofft’s H.R. Pufnstuf, a surreal live-action puppet show.
Throughout the 1960s, game shows truly blossomed after the dark days of the late 1950s including Password, Match Game, Let's Make a Deal, Jeopardy, The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, Hollywood Squares, and more.
Soaps continued their rise to the domination of daytime with new entries including Another World and Days of our Lives.
As the tumultuous decade came to a close, television audiences had been barraged with everything from hard-hitting dramas to flights of fantasy and camp.
In Watergate's Wake (1970s News)
“Nixon made that speech saying ‘I want you to know that your president is not a crook.’ When it was over, there was Cronkite saying, ‘Dan, what do you think of his saying that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, except the evidence indicates he is one, right?’ The White House called Paley and told him they didn’t like that ‘instant analysis.’”
DANIEL SCHORR, CBS news correspondent/commentator
By the early 1970s, a Roper poll found that the majority of Americans relied more on television than on newspapers for their news. The U.S. government also understood television to be a powerful tool. In fact, the 1970s became the decade where television news felt the true weight of government intervention, as embattled networks gallantly fought to preserve their independence.
The decade began with the government decision that cigarettes would never be on television again. The congressional ban on radio and television cigarette advertising caused broadcasters to lose $220 million in revenue annually.
A documentary detailing the Defense Department's use of the media to gain public support, The Selling of the Pentagon, brought CBS President Frank Stanton’s lifelong stand on First Amendment rights to the forefront. The House committee asked for outtakes of the documentary, but CBS refused -- and won.
When President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China, television cameras accompanied him. It was the first time America saw for themselves, through the eyes of a news camera, life under Maoism.
Throughout his career, Nixon had a love-hate relationship with television; during his presidency, it became his undoing. It may have begun when CBS Evening News devoted an unprecedented 14 minutes to recap the breaking Watergate scandal. Certainly by 1973, as the events led up to the Senate Watergate Hearings, which the networks rotated over 300 hours of coverage, it was clearly the endgame. After the House committee hearings called for impeachment, Nixon appeared on television to resign his presidency.
Sports arrived in primetime as NBC aired the first ever World Series night game. Tragically, ABC's coverage of the summer 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany turned grim as Palestinians held Israeli athletes hostage. Broadcaster Jim McKay covered the terrifying events live – even as the hostages were killed.
In 1979, another hostage crisis hit the airwaves, this time, Americans in Iran. ABC's nightly coverage, America Held Hostage was renamed and became the basis of Nightline, anchored by Ted Koppel.
In 1976, Barbara Walters made history by becoming television's first woman co-anchor as she joined Harry Reasoner on The ABC Evening News. Two years later, the newsmagazine 20/20 was launched on ABC.
PBS joined ranks with serious television journalism when it premiered The Robert MacNeil Report on public television. It was later renamed The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, when newsman Jim Lehrer joined the program.
Morning newsmagazine programs continued to sprout up. Originally entitled, A.M. America, Good Morning America, with hosts David Hartman and Nancy Dussault was launched to good ratings. And, the soft spoken, thoughtful newsman Charles Kuralt began his duties of hosting Sunday Morning, on CBS.
Other televised historic moments include:
1972 Olympic Games
Iran Hostage Crisis
President Nixon's resignation
President Nixon's trip to China
The Selling of the Pentagon hearings
Three Mile Island accident
The Watergate Scandal
From Bradys to Bunkers (1970s Entertainment)
“We saw All in the Family, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, because this thing was, compared to the crap that we were canceling, really setting new boundaries. And, to Bob Wood’s credit he said ‘I love the show, we’ve got to put this on the air. This is good for television and it’s good for the nation.’”
FRED SILVERMAN, CBS executive
One of biggest programming gambles in television history occurred in the early 1970s, as CBS cancelled The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and other "rural shows" the network considered unsophisticated. The gamble paid off as replacement programs including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple and All in the Family garnered high ratings and critical acclaim.
The 1970s could also be labeled, "The Decade of Norman Lear." Lear and his partner, Bud Yorkin, used situation comedy to encourage American society to see itself reflected in characters like Archie Bunker, Fred Sanford, and Maude Findlay. The shows covered new territory previously feared by the networks. Maude examined women's rights and abortion. Good Times explored poverty in America’s ghettos. One Day at a Time made heroes out of single moms.
There was a passing of the baton as some shows were retired. On continuously since 1948, The Ed Sullivan Show was cancelled in 1971. By 1975, Saturday Night Live premiered on NBC and became the new generation’s showcase for popular performers.
Some of the programs of the era include:
All in the Family
The Bob Newhart Show
The Brady Bunch
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Odd Couple
Saturday Night Live
Wheel of Fortune
The 1970s also ushered in a spate of offbeat “reality” shows like The Gong Show and Real People. Wheel of Fortune, created by Merv Griffin also began its long run. Daytime's All My Children and Ryan's Hope premiered and became afternoon rituals for millions.
Dramatically, the 1970s launched America's love affair with the miniseries – with Rich Man, Poor Man being the first. In 1977, Roots, a monumental miniseries, traced the history of an African-American family on nine consecutive evenings. It broke viewing records and racial barriers.
Dramatic series featuring quirky detectives in gritty settings lead the pack during this decade. Plus, contrary to hip cultural trends, family programs like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons garnered respectable audiences.
In the movies-made-for-television category, a young director named Steven Spielberg drove his first big hit to the television screen, with the TV movie, Duel.
And, as cable continued to snake its way around the country, cable networks began to deliver. Home Box Office became the first pay cable network to go on the air. Billboard businessman Ted Turner made his first big move and introduced the WTBS Superstation to the masses. Cable networks Showtime, ESPN, and Nickelodeon debuted as well. Perhaps this would be the end of the “Big Three” networks’ domination. Stay tuned.
Some of the drama programs of the era include:
Little House on the Prairie
The Love Boat
The Rockford Files
The Rise of CNN to the Fall of the Berlin Wall (1980s News)
“I knew that our biggest challenge would be, other than to make a good news product, to get the cable systems to carry it. And I thought if we used the name Cable in there -- Cable News Network -- how could a cable system not be carrying the Cable News Network?”
TED TURNER, CNN founder
At the dawn of the 1980s, Ted Turner risked everything to build on the success of his Superstation. Ignoring the skeptics, he launched Cable News Network (CNN). Two years later, CNN Headline News premiered. By 1987, CNN was the only network providing live coverage of what turned out to be the tragic NASA Challenger space shuttle launch. It was moments like these that proved that CNN was making its mark as a leading news source. Also, at a huge risk to his fledgling operation, Turner sued the Reagan administration and the big networks, for access to the White House pool. CNN won and earned the respect of the industry.
Even with the proliferation of entertainment viewing choices, television continued to present world and national news events for a collective audience. Breaking transatlantic barriers, as well as television viewing records, over 750 million people watched live as Great Britain's Prince Charles wed Lady Diana.
When President Ronald Reagan was hit by an assassin’s bullet, television vividly brought the news to the American public. The images of the failed attempt aired on the networks for years and helped make wounded White House Press Secretary James Brady a national hero and a symbol for gun control advocacy.
The decade also marked changes for veteran newsmen. David Brinkley began hosting duties for ABC with This Week with David Brinkley. The “most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, retired as CBS news anchor and passed the baton to Dan Rather.
On the business side, new government regulations created complications as Congress passed the Cable Communication Policy Act of 1984. The Act deregulated much of the cable industry and caused subscriber rates to increase significantly.
The groundbreaking "1984" Macintosh television commercial aired during the Super Bowl, justifying the record-breaking airtime costs of special event television spots. Along with introducing feature film production values to television advertising, it signaled the beginning of the personal computer revolution.
Another major news story of the decade was the Iran-Contra scandal and its subsequent hearings. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North was a major player in secret transactions relating to the overthrow of the socialist government of Nicaragua while secretly financing the operation by selling arms to Iran. The televised hearings, where North admitted his guilt, made him an unlikely national hero.
News coverage of the protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square reached around the world and shined a grim light on modern communism. CBS News correspondent Richard Roth was imprisoned because of his reporting. And the television image of a lone man defying an approaching tank remains a symbol of modern anti-government protest.
The decade finished with the worldwide coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Newsman Tom Brokaw reported the momentous occasion live, as the symbol of the Iron Curtain was dismantled, piece by piece. A powerful way to end a decade.
Who Watched J.R.? (1980s Entertainment)
“We benefited from the fact that we were on NBC, which in the early eighties, if you wanted to hide from the FBI you’d go on NBC.”
MICHAEL J. FOX, actor
Based on the significant success of the few cable networks from the 1970s, this decade saw the explosion of the cable industry. Successful cable networks launched during this period included: Black Entertainment Television, Music Television, Home Shopping Network, The Disney Channel, Lifetime Television, The Arts & Entertainment, Discovery Channel, VH1, QVC Network, Telemundo, E! Entertainment Television, Turner Network Television, and The Family Channel.
In the beginning of the decade, new breakthrough sitcoms were scarce. Even an old standard like M*A*S*H aired its final episode in 1983 – garnering 107 million viewers – the largest U.S. audience for a single TV program. Some of the hits from the last decade began to lose their steam, including Taxi and Soap. Drama shows from the late 1970s continued their success into the 1980s.
The 1980s signaled a shift in series themes as well. After years of watching shows that tackled tough issues of the Vietnam War, inflation and women's rights, the public’s interests shifted to escapist themes. One way to deliver that was to peek inside of the lives of the super-rich. Shows such as Dynasty, Dallas, Hotel, and even Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous fed that appetite. Millions of loyal viewers watched as Luke and Laura exchanged vows in a storybook wedding on the daytime soap, General Hospital.
The police drama again became popular with shows such as Hill St. Blues, Magnum P.I., and Simon and Simon.
The dramas were working, but how about comedy? When Grant Tinker became the chairman of the third-rated NBC, he quickly greenlit Cheers and Family Ties, which slowly rose up the ratings ladder. Plus, it was Tinker's decision to air a groundbreaking Carsey-Werner sitcom called The Cosby Show which catapulted NBC back on top.
The Cosby Show was the keystone of the network's Thursday night "Must See TV" mantra. Audiences became interested in comedies again. The other networks filled their slates with family sitcoms -- nuclear and nontraditional ones. The success of Cosby turned Carsey-Werner Productions into an independent powerhouse. They solidified their ability to deliver hit shows with the blue-collar family comedy Roseanne, which redefined the idea of a functional family.
Some favorite stars made their return to television throughout the decade including, Lee Majors, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Beatrice Arthur, and Tom Bosley. Programs which introduced the talents of individuals who would make their mark in television history included: Tom Selleck in Magnum P.I., Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies, Michael J. Fox in Family Ties, and Oprah Winfrey as The Oprah Winfrey Show became nationally syndicated from Chicago. Another daytime program The David Letterman Show premiered on NBC, but soon moved to nighttime.
Although regular star-studded variety programs were long-gone, programs that showcased the talents of newer singers and dancers began their runs, including: Solid Gold, Star Search, It's Showtime at the Apollo, and the first annual Soul Train Music Awards.
The variations of the comedy genre continued to evolve towards the end of the decade, including Moonlighting, which introduced the hour-long romantic comedy to the world. Thirtysomething soon followed.
In children’s television, the decade may be remembered for introducing us to The Smurfs and Pee Wee's Playhouse.
Toward the end of the decade, The Wonder Years became a nostalgic favorite, and the weekly real-life problems of Roseanne began directly competing with Bill Cosby's family dilemmas. And as the 1980s began to dim, the fledgling Fox network caught a hit with the controversial domestic show, Married…With Children, triggering a wave of irreverant series.
Roseanne vs. O.J. Simpson (1990s through today)
“I got a call from Barry Diller, who was the head of Fox, and he said, I’d like you to do a high school show and I said, ‘Barry, at my age, what the hell do I know about high school?’ And he said, ‘you have two kids idiot.’”
AARON SPELLING, producer, Beverly Hills, 90210
If nothing else, American audiences in the economically booming 1980s had more choices than ever before. Cable expansion continued as The History Channel, Fox News Channel, and TV Land debuted. The upstart networks of Fox and the WB seriously challenged the Big Three. The competition remained intense for quality programs. Networks fought for pieces of the shrinking market share.
In comedy, the wry irony of Seinfeld, a “show about nothing,” and the racy humor of Friends made it abundantly clear that viewers, who grew up with television, would gather to watch young, hip characters work out everyday problems. Family shows subsided -- being single was all the rage. This trend changed the writers' room dramatically -- young writers became “hot,” as networks looked to cash in on the tastes of a new generation.
Whether it was the end of the Reagan era or the end of the Cold War, sitcoms stopped being polite and started getting honest and true. As we reveled in the sarcasm of Roseanne, we enjoyed the humor and wit of shows such as Murphy Brown, Coach, Designing Women, Grace Under Fire, and Home Improvement. Another milestone occurred when both Ellen DeGeneres and her character Ellen Morgan on Ellen came out as a lesbian on national television.
In drama, the WB's new shows, including Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seemed to speak to a new generation of viewers. And it worked.
Also a youth-based reality-type documentary, MTV’s The Real World, became the first in a long series of reality TV shows. And Ken Burns breathed new life into the documentary genre as his 11-hour epic, The Civil War, premiered on PBS.
Prime examples of living in a postmodern world are clearly illustrated throughout the last decade of the century, and news divisions again took the lead. One key instance came in 1991, when Americans rushed home from work to watch the start of a war against Saddam Hussein. The bombing runs, shown live on CNN, secured that network's foothold in world news coverage. Time magazine and daily newspapers couldn't keep up with the minute-to-minute updates that television coverage provided.
With the proliferation of home video, news coverage took on a new dimension. When amateur video images of Rodney King being beaten by police were transmitted across the globe, it brought the reality of police brutality to light. And, in 1992, when a jury acquitted the officers involved in the beating, amateur videographers again preserved the horrific images of the riots that broke out on the streets of Los Angeles.
Domestically, probably the most televised news story of the decade was the O. J. Simpson story. From the night Simpson’s Bronco raced down Los Angeles freeways, until his acquittal for the murder of his ex-wife, the story played out on television. Although the entire trial was televised, it was the verdict, read live, that initiated a worldwide debate on the fairness of the American justice system.
Even syndicated talk shows reflected a controversial change in American tastes and values. Shows that premiered in the 1990s include: The Jenny Jones Show, Jerry Springer, The Montel Williams Show and The Rosie O'Donnell Show. As the decade and millennium drew to a close, new challenges were on the horizon for everyone. The 21st Century promised new technologies that would change the way America used television.
- Karen L. Herman