For years I have been hearing the whining and complaining of a whole lot of old timers about how bad TV is today, or worse, that there is nothing to watch on television, “500 channels and nothing good to watch,” is a paraphrase of a comment I have heard time and again.
Those close to me, in fact anyone who has had this conversation with me, has to have heard that I think this a bunch of hooey. It is my belief that TV has never been better than it is today.
I don’t know whether the entire baby boom generation has false memory syndrome, but sometimes I suspect it.
All it takes is a look back at what was popular in the past. In the 50s, which some call “the Golden Age of Television”, the top rated shows were I Love Lucy , Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver and Make Room for Daddy (The Danny Thomas Show). There were some great comedy shows like Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Ernie Kovacs and Milton Berle, but these were exceptions to the very thin norm. There were also some excellent dramas, especially the live dramas like Playhouse 90. Why do we always remember the good stuff and forget the garbage?
In Canada, the only shows I remember from that era are The Plouffe Family, Wayne and Shuster and the daily 6:00 O’clock news show, Tabloid.
More important, we had few choices. There was but one Canadian network, CBC, and if you were lucky to live near the U.S. border, you might have had access to CBS, NBC and ABC.
TV was so new to us that we watched whatever was on, good or bad. I know people who actually sat in front of their televisions staring at the Indian head card that was displayed before the broadcast day began.
In the 60s, 70s, and 80s we saw the growth of the one hour drama. Police and detective shows became a staple. Everything from The Naked City and Dragnet to Columbo and Hill Street Blues, you could see the growing power of great writing and directing. The acting was still less than stellar for the most part, and the stories didn’t always ring true, but TV was coming of age. Doctors and lawyers also became prime time stars with Ben Casey and The Defenders leading up to St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law. If you can wipe the nostalgia away from your eyes, you cannot help but see the progression.
Even the sitcom, which remained the staple for big audience numbers began to come of age. From shows like The Dick Vandyke Show, where the Petrie’s had to sleep in twin beds, we saw the growth in quality of TV and the television audience with programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and eventually the sublime Seinfeld.
Let’s not forget, however, the top rated sitcom for a whole lot of that time was The Beverly Hillbillies, nobodies idea of a great program.
In Canada we saw little in the way of great series during that time. There were a few successes like Seeing Things, but we had to wait for Da Vinci’s Inquest and the highly underrated This is Wonderland to get an idea of what Canadian talent could produce when given the money and the airtime.
In Canada these decades were more well-known for the rise of some of the best current affairs in the world, starting with W5 and This Hour has Seven Days and culminating in The 5th Estate and The Journal.
For the most part though, CBC and CTV made their money and grabbed their audiences with American fare. When upstart Global Television became a third Canadian network it survived its early years becoming known as The Love Boat network.
During the last 20 years TV has become a writers’ medium. I have heard many television professionals, critics and producers extolling the quality of TV writing. Many, if not most, see TV writing as far surpassing the quality of writing in feature films, where the director, not the writer, has the most power.
Drama continues to be the staple. The ten o’clock time slot on network TV has given us some of the best drama ever seen on North American Television. The West Wing, Boston Legal, and now The Good Wife, have taken television to a higher plane. Certainly the broadcast networks have been pushed by the cable networks. The brilliance of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Damages, and Rescue Me have never been equaled in the 60 odd year history of television as a medium. This is the kind of quality we had never even dreamed of. Even the sitcom is making a comeback both on cable and broadcast with shows like Modern Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And, to make matters even better, technology is making it easier and easier to enjoy all that TV has to offer today. First there’s that 500 channel universe that has created more choice than we have ever seen. Then there’s the PVR or DVR that allow the easy taping of programs when you cannot watch them live, or even if they are on one station while you are watching another station. There’s the time shifting that satellite and cable allow. You can’t be home for a show in prime time, no matter, you can watch it from Vancouver of Seattle later on in the evening. Finally, there is the web, where whether legally or illegally everyone has the opportunity to find any show they want to see.
So, from this comfortable seat in front of the television it is all too obvious that television programming, quality and technology have never been better. I hope to never hear another whine about TV today, the truth is: if you can’t find great television today, you are at fault, not the TV networks, producers and writers.
I’m sure I missed some your favorite shows, please let me know what you think I missed.