The Lost Art of Television

Defining TV’s Golden Age

Think of your favorite TV show. We all have one, or maybe several. There are obviously certain aspects of this program that appeal to you – the plot, the cast, the character development, or even something else entirely. 

Now think of it again. Would it be a show you could comfortably and easily watch from premiere to finale with your entire family – including parents and younger siblings (or nieces and nephews?) If the show is considered “modern,” chances are, probably not. 

The decline of quality television has gotten more and more apparent over the years, with more and more TV-MA shows being released as time marches on. Where in the past, obscenity whether it be gruesome violence, language, or sex on screen would have been an unfathomable shock to the average person, it has become the norm today. 

Now consider the overabundance of individual shows we have available. Multiple streaming services with thousands of options, not to mention each platform is able to release series “exclusively” for those who buy their services. You can watch whatever you want, whenever, and wherever. Just plug in your headphones and you can watch for hours. 

Think back to the world before streaming services, smartphones, and computers. A typical household owned one TV and had approximately three channels. Whatever was airing at the time you wanted to watch was what you saw, and you had to wait a week for the next episode in the series. However, because of the limited options, the programming had to be of general interest – popular, if you will, appealing to the majority of the viewers tuning in – or it would not survive. So, what happened between now and then? For the sake of progress, has the world decided that old TV formatting is “bad” and the new is “better?”  From acting to plotlines, how far has the world come in what we refer to as “entertainment”?

         On the basis of acting, Oxford Student resources released a study on the decline of drama sitcoms, stating that actors on such TV shows cycle in and out of popularity and “other actors fill these actors’ shoes”. This has become the reality of sitcoms today. When one show fails, another is quick to replace it, or else get lost in the shuffle of actors and shows available. 

There are a plethora of actors to choose from in this case, with more individuals in the acting field than ever before. Today, Hollywood operates on an agency system, according to a study released by the Academy of Art Industry. This means that actors work with their agents. The work in the past was more stable and there were far fewer actors to choose from, leading to a smaller and more experienced group auditioning and winning roles. Their experience adds to the quality of programming in the past. 

In addition to the more well-rounded acting, the plot-lines of programs have been more well-received. The student newspaper The Prospector interviewed teenagers in 2019 who had viewed programs from the 1990s or before. The students revealed they enjoyed watching such programs because they weren’t plot-driven; you didn’t need to watch every episode of every previous season to know what was happening once you chose to pick up the series . 

 Believe me, this sounds unappealing to me, as well, in today’s fast-paced and impatient environment. However, the majority of plots were cleared up in an hour or even thirty minutes. This canceled out the disappointment we feel being left on cliffhangers and the need to always play just one more episode. While it may have been shorter, the content was also far more tame.

The argument for cleaner content for entertainment travels farther back than one may think. It was over twenty years ago, in 1999, that the House of Representatives voted to encourage TV broadcasters to appeal to a more family friendly audience. However, despite this unanimous vote, the ruling was not upheld.  Over twenty years later, we have only seen the decrease in the airing of “clean” television. It is nearly impossible in today’s world to find a TV program the entire family can enjoy.

 Today’s shows are full of violence, sex, and obscene language. Because of this, family viewing has become more and more rare over the years (not to mention the variable that everyone can now watch their own choice of programming on their own device). 

The Los Angeles Times, in an article regarding the concern over the lack of family-friendly television, interviewed Horizon Media Analyst, Brad Adgate, on the subject. Adgate stated that programming for families was “very difficult”, also revealing that today’s producers aren’t programming shows “with broad-based family appeal”, due to the fact that families are watching less and less television together. 

The same article also interviewed the director of communications for Parents Television Council in Los Angeles, who states that it was “very important” for families to have options to view programs together at home, as TV has become an American staple in society.

With this established, let’s review how this problem was not present in the past. It was common for families to spend an evening watching one of the three to five channels available. Everyone together, watching programs that appealed to all. The 1970s and 80s provided everything from popular family comedy sitcoms such as Happy Days, The Partridge Family, and Family Ties to action and cop dramas like ChiPs, Hawaii 5-0, and Hill Street Blues in addition to science-fiction sagas such as Star Trek

Comparing this with today’s programming, these shows have no or minimal portrayals of sex, violence, or swearing, all the while still offering a wide range of genres and interests to choose from that can draw audiences of all backgrounds. Not only this, but this was the era of groundbreaking television that reflected the nation’s altering ways of society. 

The 1970s Charlie’s Angels introduced the first female-led cast portrayed in the typically male-dominated field of private investigations, and programming such as The Jeffersons and Webster introduced the world to actors of color in leading roles.

Modern shows can rarely hold a candle to the classics. Photo Credit | Katie Leier

Why does it matter to us college students? We’re adults, most of us living on our own, and do we really watch TV with younger children anymore?

Frontiers Science News studied the effects of on screen violence in adults. What they discovered was that acclaimed “justified” violence (such as characters committing such acts to protect friends or family or other noble causes) lead to the viewers “justifying” violence in their own minds. The researchers concluded that the line between justified and unjustified violence was unclear.

With streaming services and access to the internet, anyone is able to watch whatever their heart desires. Lack of censorship now allows for young viewers to watch content that many adults would deem unfit. Often, parents are oblivious to what their children watch. 

As the adults we claim to be, we should be fighting to protect these children, and not continue to ask for more. While it may be “cute” to some to hear young children pick up on adult habits, I personally know of at least two children under the age of four who have picked up on swear words they have heard from TV programs that adults in their life were watching. Despite being exposed to this on accident, the effects linger on.

However, this is not a pressing issue on most of our minds, there are other benefits that arise from watching older sitcoms aside from the higher acting quality and broad audience scope. 

The Today Show featured an article that explained the psychological benefits of watching reruns of sitcoms from decades past. Kristin Batcho is a psychologist and a professor at Le Moyne College in New York. Her research on nostalgia revealed that rewatching such programs “satisfies our nostalgic need and packs real emotional benefits”. 

By watching old programs, we can relive simpler times and appreciate how far we’ve come in life. This applies especially to a world recovering from COVID over the past two years. Now, more than ever, is the world desperate to feel “in control”. 

In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Jennifer Fayard explains that our brains are wired to feel rewarded when we know the ending of a situation – even on television. New experiences “can be exciting” but, “they can also be stressful”. Watching sitcoms from the past, where the ending has long been decided, feels safe for our brains and, as Dr. Fayard explains, can also be “restorative”.

Just taking into comparison the programs that I have watched, one being the modern day Parks and Rec that we all know. The show can be absolutely hilarious and the characters are so unforgettable. My qualms with the show have to deal with the adult content – multiple instances of swearing (either explicitly or bleeped) and just as many sexual references that can make viewing questionable.

Comparing this to an older sitcom from the 1970s that many of us know, The Mary Tyler Moore Show also takes place in an unorthodox office setting.This sitcom also included loveable and comedic characters with checkered lives, and while there are several sexual repercussions and a few mild swear words, they are not graphic by any means and certainly do not occur on a regular basis. 

Sex, violence, obscene language, and so many other such aspects plague television today. Endless hours of binge watching and cliffhangers and stressful plot lines. On demand television right to the palm of our hands wherever and whenever our hearts desire. These all define today’s television industry. We have become accustomed to living from one edge-of-our-seat episode to another, or else dealing with heavily-ladened adult content that makes for unfit family viewing. 

Sitcoms from years past leave out much of this, and add in the bonuses of mental health benefits as well as improved acting. We should not have to believe that the days of such viewing are past, but for the present, it appears that the “oldies-but-goodies” have more going for them in the way of quality than what Hollywood is rolling out today.

Leave a Reply