Is TV Still a 'Vast Wasteland'?

No Way, Says Historian Tim Brooks: The Box Has Had Its Ups and Downs, but We're Living in Era of Choice, With Something for Everyone

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When Newton Minow made his famous 1961 speech characterizing American TV as a "vast wasteland," network programming was in a transitional period. Gone were the great playhouse series of the 1950s ("Kraft Television Theater," "Studio One) as well as the more-experimental series that marked early TV ("Your Show of Shows," Ernie Kovacs, political discussion shows). TV had become big business. Nielsen was introducing detailed demographic measures to allow ad targeting as never before; and lighter, more populist fare had crowded out almost everything else. Even Westerns, which had begun as more-or-less accurate representations of the Old West ("The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp") had turned largely to gimmicks ("Have Gun, Will Travel," "Maverick, "Wanted: Dead or Alive").

We forget how limited viewer choice was in 1961. America was served by just three networks and they all programmed alike. There was no cable, no internet, not even much original syndication to speak of. If CBS had a hit Western, they all programmed Westerns. There was little room for experimentation or non-mainstream programming. Mr. Minow had a point.

The next few years brought little relief to his tired (some might say, elitist) eyes. The mid-1960s were marked by a rash of lightweight sitcoms ("The Beverly Hillbillies," "My Favorite Martian," "Gomer Pyle"). The S.S. Minnow of "Gilligan's Island" was sarcastically named after him. Violence largely subsided due to congressional pressure, only to be replaced by comic book-style heroes on shows such as "The Man from U.N.C.L.E," "I Spy" and "Mission: Impossible."

But the world outside the TV studio was changing. The 1960s were a time of riots in the streets, turmoil over the Vietnam War and tense confrontations with the Soviet Union. The gap between TV's world of make-believe and the real world was becoming a gulf.

Programming finally began to change in the late 1960s by reflecting the new realities in an entertainment context, whether it was the integration of minorities ("Julia," "Room 222," "The Mod Squad") independent women ("That Girl," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") or political commentary ("The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In"). Thus began TV's "Relevance Era." By the fall of 1970, relevant TV seemed to have peaked, as preachy shows such as "The Storefront Lawyers," "The Senator" and "The Young Rebels" all failed. Then, midseason, "All in the Family" debuted and ignited a second wave of relevance including "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "M*A*S*H," "Good Times" and "Bridget Loves Bernie." In daytime, new soap operas "All My Children," "One Life to Live" and "The Young and the Restless" tackled socially conscious themes (rape, euthanasia, drug addiction, minorities).

By 1975, America was exhausted. The Vietnam War was over, Nixon was gone, and angry rock had been supplanted by disco. An innocent, nostalgic little show called "Happy Days" led TV into its next major trend, The Fantasy Era, with many of its hits airing on ABC. Programmer Fred Silverman adroitly built his hit into an entire Tuesday-night lineup including "Laverne & Shirley," "Three's Company" and "Soap." Soon after came "Charlie's Angels," "Welcome Back, Kotter," "Mork and Mindy," "The Dukes of Hazzard," and the ultimate in sweetness and light, "Donny and Marie." Relevance, be gone!

Blatant escapism did not last long, however. The world was still a dangerous place, and by 1980 Mr. Silverman (now at NBC) had overplayed his hand with fluffy flops such as "Supertrain" and "Pink Lady and Jeff ." The next great era of TV programming, and the last to be dominated by the broadcast networks, was marked by prime-time soap operas and a concurrent swing back to reality. The soaps reflected a Reagan-era fascination with the super-rich, whether it was the Ewings of "Dallas," the Carringtons of "Dynasty" or the Channings of "Falcon Crest." Cliffhangers were the norm, and season-enders sought to top each other (who could forget "Who Shot J.R.?"). At the same time, other shows reflected real life -- or an approximation of it -- beginning with the somewhat awkward "Real People" (filmed reports of "real folks" across America) in 1979 and prime-time newsmagazines including "20/20" and a surging "60 Minutes" (the No. 1 show on TV in 1979-80 and 1982-83). Dramas became decidedly grittier. The good guys didn't always win on "Hill Street Blues," "Cagney & Lacey" and "St. Elsewhere."

As the '90s began, TV entered the "Era of Choice." Not what Newton Minow had envisioned in 1961, perhaps, but certainly more fertile ground for innovation. The principal engine of change was, of course, cable, whose networks produced targeted, original programming. There was Nickelodeon for the kids, CNN for the news junkies, and dozens of others. While broadcasters retreated to tried-and-true formats ("Friends," "ER," "Murder She Wrote,") innovation in the 1990s came largely from cable ("South Park," "Rugrats," "Sex and the City," "The Sopranos"). Original syndicated shows, though less innovative, also boomed.

This was only the prelude. The first decade of the 2000s has been dubbed "The Reality Era," but it was really an era of choice. If you want serious drama, there's "Mad Men," "Six Feet Under" or "The Wire"; if it's intelligent comedy try "The Daily Show"or "Curb Your Enthusiasm"; if it's tightly plotted thrillers, how about "True Blood" or "Damages?" If you prefer to not be sure what you're watching, try "Carnivale." And, of course, "reality" shows of every stripe filled the screen -- some being high-quality efforts such as "The Amazing Race" and "American Idol" and others that were just -- well -- odd. Whole networks are now devoted to the genre. If Newton Minow couldn't find something to like in this plethora of choice, tailored to so many tastes -- highbrow and low-brow -- perhaps he'd need to rethink his definition of a "wasteland." It's been a storm-tossed journey, but we've come a long way from "Gilligan's Island."

Tim Brooks is co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Networks and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present" and a former network executive.
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