Iconic Television and Pathos
Gerald R. Butters, Jr./Aurora University
From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, the medium of television created a number of iconic moments. I define “iconic moment” as a piece of entertainment or historical event that was shared by a large mass of the American public. Specifically, in this time period, it included the birth of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s baby on I Love Lucy (1952), the exoneration of Richard Kimble in the final episode of The Fugitive (1967), the “Who Shot JR?” episode of Dallas (1980) and the series finale of M.A.S.H. (1983).
All of these events were pieces of television entertainment, significant enough that they were watched by tens of millions of Americans and the majority of the television viewing audience. But iconic television moments of this era also included television coverage of significant historical events including the Kennedy-Nixon television debates (1960), Neil Armstrong walking on the moon (1969), Richard Nixon’s resignation speech (1974) and the explosion of the Challenger (1986).
These were shared historical moments that were intensified by the medium of television both with the immediate coverage of these events and then with the saturation follow up in their depiction.
Television, in its first thirty years, was a medium almost unrecognizable to today’s generation of youth. In most markets, including major urban areas, television viewers had three or four choices when the television was turned on. The major networks – NBC, CBS and ABC – each had their own channel in major markets. There also was often a UHF station and after 1969, a PBS affiliate. But this only applied to major markets. Rural areas often had even more limited viewing opportunities. Nevertheless, from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, Americans had far more commonalities in their viewing patterns due to the limited number of choices. Whether one was discussing Perry Mason, Archie Bunker, The Fonz or the Clampetts, there was a cultural televisual literacy that the majority of Americans shared.
The medium of television began changing with the introduction of cable television nationally in the 1970’s. By the end of the decade, nearly 16 million households were cable subscribers. Cable television often appealed directly to adult television viewers though. The lack of FCC regulation on cable networks such as HBO and Cinemax allowed the networks to feature more adult entertainment. The advent of the VCR in the early 1980’s and the explosion of videotape rental businesses gave Americans more of a choice when it came to their home entertainment decisions. By the 1980’s, Americans were no longer solely dependent upon the major networks; cable television and videotapes offered a multitude of entertainment possibilities. This began to have a precipitous impact on network affiliate viewing. In 1985-1986, 45.1% of U.S. households were tuned into the major networks on a nightly basis. In the 1980’s, there were still television shows such as The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Cheers that had mass audiences though. By 2000-2001, the network share had dropped from 45.1% to 32.6%, a 28% drop. The winner for the viewing audience was basic cable which saw its share go from 3.9% in 1985-1986 to 28.2% in 2000-2011. This was a 1382% increase. Even more important, basic cable was almost claiming as many viewers on a nightly basis as network television. The number of choices in basic cable also exploded in the 1980s and 1990’s with channels devoted to home shopping, history, sports, news, children’s programming and home design.1 This meant that Americans were far more fractured in their viewing patterns.
The concept of the mass audience for a televisual entertainment event collapsed with the new century. The first major American reality television show, Survivor Borneo, captured over 51 million viewers in the season finale on August 23, 2000.
The behemoth that is American Idol had its first finale on September 4, 2002. Twenty-three million Americans watched Kelly Clarkson crowned as champion. But that was less than half of the mass audience for Survivor. For the first twelve years of this century, no American television event that is considered entertainment has captured a mass audience. Only 25% of the viewing public still watch a network channel on any given night. Sporting events, primarily the Superbowl, are still able to capture huge audiences but no fictional or reality television show can claim these ratings.
Does this mean that Americans no longer share iconic television moments in our culture? Well, we do, but they are coverage of historical events. And almost all of these events have been significant tragedies. The horror of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the sheer destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the recent massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school (2012) all were tragedies which were covered intensely by network and cable news teams, watched by tens of millions of American viewers.
What does this mean for our culture when the only shared events we have are tragedies; television accounts of suffering and pathos? What does this mean for the medium of television as a cultural force in our nation? If the only shared moments that television can bring to the American people are tremendous losses of human life, inhumanity, violence and terror, what does this say about the future of the television medium? As an “imagined community” are we united only by our sharing of grief, anxiety and tears?
Since its inception, television, as an artistic form, has rested on its appeal to the audience’s emotions. Those singular iconic television moments that resounded throughout our culture were often dependent upon universal human events (births, marriages, deaths) or finales which masses of people could relate to. Now that the American television audience is fractured into millions of individual components, with individuals not only viewing hundreds of different television channels but also watching television when they desire, be it streaming, on demand, on the internet or on DVD, the singular iconic television moment in the form of entertainment, ceases to exist. So all we have, as a shared community, are historical incidents of deep pathos. If the only iconic television moments we share are depictions of suffering, does this reflect the deep cultural and political divides in our nation? Victories, be they political or judicial, are not shared by an American people deeply fractured.
The one unique exception to this model was the 2012 London Olympics. Prior to the summer of 2012, many cultural commentators believed that the Olympics were passé, a relic of the twentieth century. Yet more than 219.4 million Americans watched the Olympics, making it the most watched event in U.S. television history. NBC’s coverage of the Olympics was wildly castigated by the critics as human interest stories (rather than sport) seemed to construct the coverage and that the network almost exclusively focused on American athletes. Yet this combination of Lifetime/Hallmark emotion and rampant nationalism played well with the American people, with over 31 million Americans watching the coverage every viewing night. Perhaps this sharing of a sporting event, draped in melodramatic emotion and patriotism, supplanted the relentless parade of tragedy on television.2 This relationship between a mass medium, iconic shared moments, and national identity, in the twenty-first century, is ripe for exploration. The old models no longer apply.
1. Final Moments of MASH
Please feel free to comment.
- Bill Gorman, Where Did the Primetime Broadcast Television Audience Go? TV By the Numbers http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2010/04/12/where-did-the-primetime-broadcast-tv-audience-go/47976/ [↩]
- London Olympic 2012 Ratings: Most Watched Event in TV History, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/13/london-olympics-2012-ratings-most-watched-ever_n_1774032.html [↩]