Why TV Still Needs Mainstream Hits - Macleans.ca

Why TV Still Needs Mainstream Hits


The cancellation of Lone Star has touched off, in addition to the usual irritating snobbery, some discussion about whether there’s room for “risky” shows on broadcast TV, moving from there to the question of whether it matters — with so many good shows on cable, and with cable shows increasingly available online to the people who don’t have cable, is it really important where a good show runs, as long as it runs?

Leaving aside the question of how risky or good Lone Star was (we’ll never really know, since it didn’t run long enough), I think the answer is yes, even now, there is a need for great mass-entertainment shows, the kind that speak to the wide audience that only broadcast TV has access to. (Let’s remember, again, that the terrible numbers for Lone Star would be a huge viewership for all but a select few cable dramas. Even with audience fragmentation, broadcast still has a wider reach.) One reason for this is just the fun of the water-cooler effect. When a show combines broad popularity with quality, it becomes part of the shared cultural experience.

Yes, there are ways for a cable show to break into the cultural consciousness, though it’s sometimes debatable how much this happens. James Poniewozik says that “A show like Jersey Shore or Mad Men is arguably much more widely discussed, though not more widely watched, than NCIS,” but while that is true of Jersey Shore — largely because, like many reality shows, it penetrates into the gossip magazines and syndicated gossip shows, and therefore has reach far beyond cable television — I’m not sure how much of an impact Mad Men is really having, beyond those articles about a mild resurgence of interest in ’60s fashions. Its imprint on our cultural DNA remains small compared to, say, CSI, which completely changed and distorted the way we think about crime solving. Even something that’s widely mocked, like David Caruso’s one-liners, is a sign of a show that really reaches people; when a show is actually good, the mannerisms of the characters become almost the stuff of legend.

The other reason why there’s something special about a mainstream broadcast hit is that there are things they can do that no cable show can do. The most important thing, in my opinion, is the ability of mainstream mass-market television to have an impact on society; that’s the thing that many people have always celebrated and feared about TV, that it can reach so many people (who don’t have to pay for the shows themselves) and influence them. Not that TV can change attitudes alone. TV tends to take things that are already in the air — trends that the networks want to cash in on — and put them on the air. But by making TV shows about these things, Hollywood re-enforces them, making it harder for those trends to be turned back. That’s what the infamous Parents Television Council understands with its campaigns against “sinful” material on network TV: once attitudes become mainstreamed by TV, it’s hard to un-mainstream them.

Richard Nixon was another person who understood this, sort of; after All In the Family started, he and his aides spent several minutes in the White House discussing an episode they’d seen, with Nixon worrying that “the box” would influence kids to be more tolerant of homosexuality, while his aides seemed more worried that it was making conservative Nixon-loving hard-hats out to be idiots. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, liberals point out that TV has contributed to hard-line attitudes toward crime — since there has hardly ever been a TV hero since the ’60s who acts as if suspected criminals have any rights — and that 24 gave audiences, and even Supreme Court justices, an example to point to when they wanted to argue for the necessity of torture. It’s not that seeing Jack Bauer single-handedly turns people’s attitudes around; it’s just that he was on TV every week, he was widely known, and he was a more potent argument for certain ideas and attitudes than any newspaper editorial could ever be.

So a TV show that reaches large audiences, and broad audiences, has a power that niche shows don’t. The Wire was a great show, and one that wanted to get people angry and make them question their attitudes and preconceptions. But it could never have the kind of power it hoped to have — the power that gets ordinary people everywhere arguing about the ideas presented, or Presidents worried that it will change people’s attitudes (President Obama likes The Wire, but unless some tapes come out, I doubt he sits around worrying about its impact on society). Because not many people watched it, it had an unforgettably powerful impact on those who did watch it, but not much success in bringing about social or political or cultural change. Whereas a show like Will & Grace — a compromised, censored, mainstream entertainment — may have had genuine social impact simply by helping to mainstream the idea that gay people were normal. It didn’t create today’s slowly-increasing acceptance of gay rights among younger people, but like all mainstream hits, it both followed a trend and helped drive it.

This is not a knock on The Wire, because that show could never have been what it was on a broadcast network, not artistically. But if a creator wants to use the power of television to shape the culture or promote ideas, then broadcast is usually the place for it. (Not that cable can’t help, of course — for example, not many people watch cable news, but by promoting certain ideas and viewpoints, it feeds into and helps shape the coverage on the more-widely-watched broadcast and local news.) Cable is the perfect place for internal psychodrama or the exploration of questions about human life and human identity: Breaking Bad is a perfect cable show because, while it is in part about the modern world and the problems that we face every day, it’s primarily about examining one man falling apart under extraordinary circumstances.

The great broadcast shows can be about people, and about ideas, but many of them are also about trends, attitudes, modern life as we live it. All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*S*H were all about what was going on in the world right at that moment, in the early ’70s (yes, M*A*S*H was set in the ’50s but it wasn’t trying to fool anybody). Even a show as completely frivolous and cheesy as Charlie’s Angels presented itself as being a response to social changes in its era: depending on what you wanted to read into it, it was either about women using their sex appeal to be empowered, or a retreat back into the good old days when women took orders from men. Look at the current broadcast hits — the prodedurals, the comedies, whatever Glee is — and you’ll find a lot of topicality even if the references are not topical. Ripped-from-the-headlines stories, investigations into murders that take place in carefully-chosen, recognizable situations, reflections of our anxiety about technology or family life or romance; this is the stuff of the broadcast hit. It doesn’t try to dig deep into the human psyche like cable often does, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the externals of daily life, the stuff we can recognize from our experience or our neighbours’.

Is broadcast TV doing all it can do within its limitations? Of course not, and that’s why even people who mostly watch cable should want broadcast TV to do better, because cable simply can’t pick up the slack. Shows that bring socio-political issues into a wide range of homes, shows that reflect back on life as it is currently lived and challenge us to re-examine the mundane details of life, and just plain fun shows that everyone at the office seems to be watching; these are what broadcast can give us at its best. Cable TV can give us a great artistic experience at its best — but broadcast TV can change the world.

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Why TV Still Needs Mainstream Hits

  1. I realize that PBS is not, technically, a network, but the first thing to come to mind when I read this was the difference between Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock (which aired on HBO in the US). Sesame Street was, of course, a genuine revolution in children's television. Not only is its impact still felt today, the show just started its 41st season. Most American TV viewers are familiar with its characters, songs, and approach to education. It's quite common to hear people of all ages say that the show "taught" them the alphabet, or how to count, or any number of concepts.

    Jim Henson famously wanted Fraggle Rock to be a show that would "bring about world peace." Of course, airing on a premium cable network, it could never have that effect on American children. If it had aired on PBS in the mid-80s, its impact would undoubtedly have been much greater. It wouldn't have ended war, but it would have helped shape a lot more attitudes.

    Of course, that's all 25 years ago, but still. The point stands, I think.

    • And yet now Sesame Street won't allow the lovely, lovely Katy Perry to be shown but in the past they were able to show:

      [youtube 7-L-Fg7lWgQ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-L-Fg7lWgQ youtube]

      • That's a great clip. Thanks for sharing.

        Although you can't see Buffy's breasts, it's still a pretty radical clip, and I can't imagine Sesame Street being able to get away with this kind of thing today. Not in the era of nipple gate, or the outraged response to the 2006 issue of Baby Talk magazine featuring a baby at breast on its cover <a href="http://(http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14065706/)” target=”_blank”>(http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14065706/).

        It's a bizarre attitude from a culture that gave us both Madonna and Britney Spears.

  2. If you're going to measure by the yardstick of "mainstream hits" of the '70s, then I think you also have to acknowledge the fact that TV's biggest mainstream hits are, by that standard, not big mainstream hits either. You cite the cultural impact of 24: what was its audience compared with a hit drama of the three-network era? CSI's?

    If the significance of broadcast TV is about sheer numbers of audience, then it's about absolute, not relative numbers–which means that, no matter how good or bad its quality, the most popular broadcast network show today will not have nearly the cultural reach of Too Close for Comfort.

    • It's got to be a combination of numbers and cultural reach, though, no? I'm not saying a show with a small audience cannot have impact, or that a show with a large audience can't be forgettable — but the likelihood of really drumming something into the public brain certainly diminishes when you're on a network where 4 million viewers is great, as opposed to one where 4 million viewers is terrible. 24 was not as big a hit as the biggest hits of the past, but nevertheless, it was getting 10-13 million viewers, which is many, many times more than Breaking Bad can get on a good week. I think these things do have an impact — it's not a coincidence that the political-football aspect of 24 was at its height when its viewership was highest.

      Has the TV viewing audience fragmented? Yes — but I think we tend to overstate the fragmentation. I mentioned Charlie's Angels so I'll note that it averaged about 18 million viewers at its peak — which is great, and more than most broadcast hits would expect today, but it's actually fewer viewers than NCIS averaged last season. It's probably true that a scripted network show will never again have 20 million-plus viewers like Friends or CSI at their peaks, though that might just be something network executives tell themselves as an excuse for not coming up with one. But the collapse of broadcast TV as a mass medium just hasn't happened yet.

      • In 1976, however, the US population was 218 million, about 3/4 what it is today. (In other words, if you're talking share, which I assume is what we mean when we mean "Mainstream"–a big percentage of people watching the same thing–the difference is much bigger.) Last week, the #25 show–Glee, actually–pulled an 11 share, where the #1 show, DWTS, had a 20 share. No offense to Canada, but in a country of 300+ M people, I don't see the argument that 10-15 million people = mass cultural impact whereas 3-4M = a niche. At some point, you're just comparing niches. Which, I would argue, is what people do today. You make a very good point that Obama is not worrying about the effects of The Wire on the body politic. He does, however, worry about the effects of Fox News and Glenn Beck, who gets around 3 million a day. (Political football 24 was never even a top 20 show, btw.)

        Not saying audience size doesn't matter at all, but (1) it doesn't work like it did in the 70s anymore (e.g., shows like Beck's have impact beyond their TV airing) and (2) the historically brief anomaly, of the mid-20th-century, in which most people experienced the same thing at the same time, is over regardless. Yes, there will always be SOMETHING that is bigger than everything else, but by that relativistic definition, there will always be a "biggest mainstream show."

        • That's true — the "mass" audience is continuing to erode (though, again, it hasn't been that long since CSI was pulling numbers that are almost comparable to American Idol). But this is also true of movies — famously, there used to be something like 65% of the U.S. population that went to the movies, and by the '60s it was down to something like 10%. Yet even with lower movie attendance and more of the audience's time taken up with other competing formats, the "mass appeal" movie has never really died out — the distinction between mainstream hit and niche film may fluctuate (especially since even mass-market movies are marketed to certain elements of the audience) but a big hit movie like Avatar still has the power to reach lots of people and get them talking, even if it doesn't always use that power for good.

          I agree that cable news is influential beyond its numbers but I think that's partly because, as with reality shows, they spill over into "fact." People who have never seen Glenn Beck can still hear about ideas he introduced or popularized on his show, because other media outlets pick them up. Reality shows, it's the same: if you've never seen Jersey Shore, you might still follow them just as figures in the gossip magazines. But with scripted fiction TV, there are no facts or even "facts"; it's all made-up, so they don't normally become part of news stories. It's hard to get into an argument about a TV character unless you've seen the show, but you can argue about something a cable news pundit said even if you haven't watched it, as long as you know what he said.

      • Has anyone ever met any of the 20 million people who watch NCIS? Has anyone ever met anyone who has even watched ONE episode of it?

        • I know about a dozen people who watch it. I don't care if they watch it in the privacy of their own home, as long as they don't want to flaunt it in front of my kids.

        • I know lots of people who love it; I've written before that I get the impression it has as passionate and involved an internet fan following as any show, except that the following appears to be centred around message boards etc. that are devoted to the show, rather than spilling over into what's known as the "TV geek" community.

          As I said, though I don't watch it frequently enough to know, I have this feeling that it's one of those shows whose interest is substantially increased for people who watch it regularly and get attached to the characters enough to argue about the little variations on formula.

        • It's never struck me as a bad show, or good. It's never struck me at all. It's one of those shows I have never seen even one episode of and therefore have no opinion.

  3. I have two responses to this post:

    1) Since your argument is basically that TV shows affect society primarily by re-emphasizing pre-existing trends, how can we tell whether they're _really_ changing society that much? Maybe Will & Grace changed a few people's minds, but just as likely a show like that was green-lit because people were already willing to accept a gay leading man in a sitcom.

    2) Speaking as a criminal defense attorney, it's interesting that the practical effect of police procedurals on jurors is frequently at odds with the implicit politics of the show. As your link shows, CSI has the perverse effect of leading jurors to expect prosecutors to demonstrate that a defendant definitely committed the crime through the use of forensic evidence. When Perry Mason was popular, by contrast, defense attorneys frequently worried that jurors would expect them to point out "the real killer," and maybe even get him to confess on the stand, which is obviously something that almost never happens.

    • CSI has also taught me that there is basically blood and/or semen on pretty much everything.

      I also enjoy word play and taking off my sunglasses in dramatic fashion.

  4. If you have the patience for it, the Nixon clip is interesting. Andrew Sullivan posted it last year some time. The part that is excised is one thing that has me intrigued.

    • Has there been speculation on what it was? My assumption was he was talking about someone who was gay, or who he suspected of being gay.

  5. God, you're smart! Is there any way you could be convinced to leave Macleans and take over drama programming at the CBC?

    Good broadcast television has always been about discovering what most people are trying to figure out, dealing with or debating with their friends in real life and then offering a dramatic take on those trends or issues.

    When it's done well it raises either awareness or the intensity of the discussion forcing more people to decide where they stand. That's been the purpose of drama in society since we invented both of them.

    Great article.

  6. Grr, I had a great comment yesterday that never made it. Bloody IE6.____Anyways, something like this: I can't judge the effect of cable vs network television because I skew towards very adult and niche television, found only on cable, and this mirrors my cultural choices in other disciplines. It also reflects the choices of most of my friends. So although at work, or in other places where I discuss culture with people I have not chosen to associate with – and my workplace is large enough that I can make some of these choices from within its pool – I am apprised of some things that are specific to mainstream network television or the effect thereof (i.e., McSteamy v McDreamy, who wins Idol, etc.), this is rare. I make a concerted effort to try and stay current with some mainstream cultural content so that I can exchange ideas and pleasantries with people that I have little in common with (after years of being so punk rock I couldn't and was therefore a horrible stuffy snobby jerkface). In my original comment, longer and less coherent, I made reference to Schroedinger's Cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle