Wednesday, October 29, 2014

My Seventies Sit-Com Studies Part 1

With so many outlets from which to get entertainment these days, watching TV isn't what it used to be. 

The major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS & NBC) have cable networks (USA, SiFi, FX, ect.), superstations (TNT,TBS & WGN), and subscription channels (Showtime, HBO, ect.) with which to compete. Not to mention all the specialty cable channels some of which are represented below. 

As you can see just from this small sample, TV viewing choices these days number in the hundreds. 

Netflix, Hulu, DVRs, "On Demand" and complete series on DVD allows a person the option to "customize" their viewing and optimize their free time. They can watch a single episode program or "binge watch" their favorite shows when they have the time. Not to mention the privilege of mobility that technology has given them. 

But back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager and probably up until 1997 when "Seinfeld" ended, the major broadcast networks focused on strategically grouping programs, placed the the correct time slots, on the appropriate night of the week to attract viewers. 

Believe it or not at one time there was only the "big 3" TV networks. 

Executives that ran those major TV outlets were consistently searching for that elusive 3 hour block of prime time programming that would persuade Mr. & Mrs. America to park themselves in front of their one and only TV set. It was even better if the entire family sat down to watch together.  

At one time the typical family had just one TV in their home; usually the centerpiece of the living room or main family gathering place in the house. They used to be called "sets" because the components needed to bring all the network stars into the home basically consisted of tubes and transistors mounted in a chassis, a picture tube, and a rather large speaker. These components took up quite a bit of room so they were mounted and housed in a rather large cabinet.  

Manufacturers of TVs in the 50's thru the 80's made TVs intended to be part of a home's decor; a piece of furniture if you will. Here's an example of what they looked like circa 1970:
Now let's get back to my main subject.

By the time the 1960's came around 90% of US homes had a TV set. 

The networks' goal was to get the viewers to sit down after dinner, turn on their early evening newscast and,remain fully entertained, not touching the dial (aka changing the channel) until they got up and turned it off after watching the late night local news and heading to bed. In the days before remote control you had to actually get up and change the channel by turning a dial on the front of the set.

In TV's early days the 50's and early 60's, Saturday, and Sunday nights were the main focus for effective programming blocks.

By the time the late 70s, 80s & 90s came along, when the baby boomers really came into their own, the placing of blocks of popular programs shifted to weeknights. 

Reason being that on weekends the coveted demographic of 18-35 year old viewers were usually either on dates, out visiting friends, or otherwise occupied with family activities. 

The early hours of Sunday night usually had family friendly programming because that's when parents were home getting their kids ready to go back to school the next morning. 

Later Sunday night programming was filled with shows that "mom & dad" might enjoy during their brief time alone before the start of another work week. 

Near the end of the 1960s and into the early 70s, network programmers faced a new challenge, especially when it came to TV comedies. 

Throughout the decade, TV sit-coms had transitioned from the "screwball" and "slapstick" comedies of the 50s, led by the pioneering "I Love Lucy", to the family and or community oriented based shows of the early 60s, such as "Dick Van Dyke Show" and Danny Thomas' "Make Room For Daddy".

But by the mid 60s, the electronic portal that brought these lighthearted and very popular programs into the home was soon invaded by things out of it's control. 

The nightly network news broadcasts began bringing the reality of the Vietnam War, it's political and social repercussions (peace rallies, protests and "sit-ins"), the conflicts of the civil rights movement (inter city riots) directly into American living rooms.   

It was a stark and sobering contrast between reports of the latest bombing campaign in southeast Asia, or film of the use of water cannons by police to control protesters on the news followed by shows that portrayed the idyllic peaceful world of the TV sit-com families.  Shows such as "Leave it to Beaver", "Father Knows Best", "The Donna Reed Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show" quickly became reflection of an America that "was". 

Viewers had initially identified with these shows. They could see themselves or people they knew in the characters. But by the late 60s those same shows were more fiction than fact when it came to cultural commonness with TV watchers. 

Add into the equation the sexual revolution and its political partner, the woman's rights movement, (both fueled by the introduction of "the pill") and you'll see how a very wide culture gap had developed between TV sit-coms and the reality experienced by the public that was supposed to be their audience. 

The creative arm of the industry was not ignorant of the need for TV sit-coms to change. They knew that a show's audience needed a frame of reference; something about a character or situation that related to their own lives. After all, comedy has to contain an element of reality for it to be funny. 

With their 68 and 69 fall TV seasons network programmers began scheduled a shows that would help them keep pace with political and cultural changes in the world.  

NBC's Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In set the standard for cutting edge comedy...

...while ABC's Room 222 was an issue driven mixture of comedy and drama. 

I have to pause here and mention that the show's theme song is in the top 10 of my list of all time favorite theme songs. The 90 second opening billboard is probably the longest ever in TV history.Here's a link to a You Tube video of that opening minute and a half:
Room 222 Opening Theme & Billboard 

But in the 1970s the TV sit-com would go through not one but two evolutionary changes. The first one at the start of the decade was so on-target and resonated with viewers with so loudly that it ran it's course rather quickly. The pendulum of viewer's tastes swung the other way in the latter half of the 1970s. 

So why have I given this lengthy history lesson about TV programming? It's to set the groundwork for me to lead into writing about, what I consider to be, the single best Saturday night TV network lineup in television history. 

Not only have I been enjoying reruns of this group of classic 1970s sitcoms since they went off the air, but over the last couple of years I have been learning about them, their individual histories, mostly through biographies about.the people who a part of them.   

The process has become a detailed study of the most popular sit-coms of the 1970s. Over next few posts I will be writing about those shows, their place in my personal history and the resources I've used to discover what I know. Come back later for the 2nd part of my "seventies sit-com studies" series.

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