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Golden age of television, yes — but not for broadcast networks

There’s a perceptive article in The Atlantic this month that makes the case for this as a golden age of television.

The argument is that several original series on HBO, Netflix, Showtime, AMC and other non-broadcast outlets are among the best in the medium’s history, partly because the studios are now obsessed with franchises, and television is based upon them.

I agree that this is the best television era, though I would say that it’s because of the choices we have. The very existence of TCM, Encore Westerns, Cloo (silly name notwithstanding) and other specialty cable channels is proof enough, in my mind. And certainly the best serialized dramas of today stack up pretty well with the best in any decade.

 

Broadcast network television, however, was much better 30 or 40 years ago.

Let’s take a look at the top 20 broadcast shows for Feb. 4-10, 2013, a list dominated by CBS.

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The best shows on the current list, based on what I’ve seen, are “NCIS,” “Person Of Interest,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

Here are the top 20 broadcast shows for Feb. 5-11, 1973. This is Nielsen’s measurement of 70 TV markets, taken from Daily Variety’s Feb. 20, 1973 edition; the final numbers for the 200+ U.S. markets were released the next day, but for whatever reason Variety didn’t print out a full list of the shows and their ratings (though there was an article that mentioned some of them), so I used the preliminary numbers.

There was some difference between these and the final results — “Columbo” finished second, ahead of “Sanford and Son,” for instance. Essentially, though, these are the top 20 programs for that week.

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My votes for best shows in the 1973 ranking would be “All In The Family,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Columbo,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Cannon.”

“All In The Family” was then in its third season, a year that included masterful episodes such as the hilarious premiere “Archie and the Editorial,”  “Lionel Steps Out,” “Mike Comes Into Money” and “Archie and The Bowling Team.” The episode seen on Feb. 10, 1973 was “Class Reunion.”

“Hawaii Five-O” was at its height during Season 5. The show had its highest Nielsen ranking in any season, finishing at No. 3 with a 25.2 rating and 38 share. It aired what most fans consider its greatest episodes, the “V for Vashon” trilogy (Nov. 14-28, 1972), along with other standout segments  “The Jinn Who Clears the Way,” “I’m a Family Crook — Don’t Shoot,” the compelling if needlessly complex “Here Today, Gone Tonight” and the episode that aired during the week highlighted here, “Will the Real Mr. Winkler Please Die?”

The Feb. 11, 1973 episode of “Columbo” was “A Stitch In Crime,” featuring Leonard Nimoy as an egotistical surgeon who murders his colleague (Will Geer) during heart surgery and then has to dispatch a nurse (Anne Francis) who has figured out the scheme. Other great episodes from the program’s second season include the premiere, “Etude In Black” and “Double Shock.”

Of course there are clinkers on both lists. “Two and a Half Men” stands out as one of the really bewildering sitcom hits of all time, with or without Charlie Sheen. I never got the appeal of “American Idol,” especially the earlier rounds when so many terrible singers are on display. Admittedly I have a significant bias against the “Five-O” remake, but portraying McGarrett as a smart-ass destroys any credibility it might have had.

Among the ’73 shows, ABC’s made-for-TV “Movie Of The Week” was often mediocre at best; it seemed cool to watch theatrical films like “The Brotherhood” on television, but of course having them chopped up and presented in the wrong aspect ratio was a bad compromise. And there’s a reason why the Bob Hope of this period was so effectively parodied by Dave Thomas on “SCTV.”

Overall, though, I’ll take network TV as it was then. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time watching many of those shows on DVD.

A couple of postscripts:

By the end of the 1972-73 season, CBS finished with a 19.8 rating for the 30-week period, while NBC had a 19.1 and ABC brought up the rear with a 17.5. “NBC’s early-season lead was overcome by the CBS splurge after [the] turn of the year,” Variety said in its May 8, 1973 edition.

CBS was in the latter stages of a 20-year run of dominance that ran from 1956 to 1976.

I thought it might also be interesting to go back another 10 years, so here are Nielsen’s 10 highest-rated shows from the two-week period ending Feb. 10, 1963, eight of which were on the Tiffany Network. (I couldn’t find a list of the top 20.)

 

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Another valuable source for this post was “The TV Schedule Book: Four Decades of Network Programming From Sign-On to Sign-Off,” by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik, McGraw-Hill, 1984. 309 pp.

 

— David B. Wilkerson

3 Responses to Golden age of television, yes — but not for broadcast networks

  1. Steve says:

    Totally agree on Hawaii-Five-0. The remake just doesn’t cut it, even allowing for the generational shift in the characters.
    And even though there are really good shows being produced today — my favorites mostly come from USA Network (although missing In Plain Sight something fierce) — there is nothing to compare with the singularly classic shows of the past, Columbo being the best example of a show that is nowhere equaled today. (For that matter you can add McCloud and McMillan and Wife to the group). Modern Family is a great show, but All in the Family isn’t just better, it’s seminally better. Note also American Idol’s rating which is one-third that of The Flip Wilson Show, and more than rightly so.
    The 1963 list is a little tougher to defend, despite the beloved Andy Griffith Show and iconic Gunsmoke. But Ben Casey was no House and the Beverly Hillbillies, well, they were not Lucy or Dick. But move a few years forward, to 1967 or 1968, and you can see where we did enter the true Golden Age.

    • Yes. I mean, you can’t get 30+ ratings for regular weekly shows anymore, but I would argue that broadcast networks ratings would be higher than they are if they were engaging and challenging people the way they did 40 years ago.

      The 1963 list is handicapped by only being 10 deep. I do have the Top 20 shows for the entire season, which give a better indication of the overall quality. I’ll put that in a follow-up post. The early ’60s were very strong for drama, in my view, while after “The Dick Van Dyke Show” there’s a long drop-off to the next-best sitcom.

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