Reviews — From the November 2016 issue

Ready for Prime Time

Why TV Got Good

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Discussed in this essay:

The Platinum Age of Television: From “I Love Lucy” to “The Walking Dead,” How TV Became Terrific, by David Bianculli. Doubleday. 592 pages. $32.50.

Television: A Biography, by David Thomson. Thames & Hudson. 304 pages. $34.95.

Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook, by Clive James. Yale University Press. 216 pages. $25.

In 1970, CBS appointed a new vice president for programming. Within a year, in a move that would soon become known as the “rural purge,” he had canceled Hee Haw, Lassie, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Mayberry R.F.D., some of them among the network’s highest-rated shows. In their stead he introduced The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and M*A*S*H, three of the most esteemed programs in the history of television. By the middle of the decade, he had also added Maude, Rhoda, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, shows that likewise helped to bring a new sense of social relevance to the small screen.

“Florida, 1963,” by Lee Friedlander, whose work is now on view at Fraenkel Gallery, in San Francisco. All artwork © The artist. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

“Florida, 1963,” by Lee Friedlander, whose work is now on view at Fraenkel Gallery, in San Francisco. All artwork © The artist. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

In 1975, ABC, the perennial runt of the network litter, appointed a new president of its entertainment division. Within a couple of years, he had green-lit Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Battle of the Network Stars (satirized by Saturday Night Live as “Network Battle of the T’s and A’s”). Collectively, these shows and others like them earned the nickname “jiggle television,” a new low for the lowest common denominator. They also catapulted ABC to the top of the ratings, displacing CBS after more than two decades of continuous dominance.

The first executive was Fred Silverman. The second executive was also Fred Silverman. And his motive was the same in each case. The revolution at CBS was undertaken not, as the story often goes, out of a high-minded sense of social responsibility or any commitment to artistic excellence. Silverman cut the rural shows and introduced the hipper ones because he wanted the network to pivot from the aging segments of the audience to the more desirable young-adult demographic. When he got to ABC, where he also revived the fortunes of Happy Days, spun off Laverne & Shirley, and oversaw the creation of Roots, the executive whom Time would dub “the man with the golden gut,” continuing to surf the zeitgeist, sensed the opportunities for market share that lay in new directions.

Television, like movies and popular music, is often portrayed as an ongoing battle between the artists and the suits. The artists want creative freedom; the suits want profits. Both propositions are true, but the latter doesn’t mean the suits are evil. It simply means they’re businesspeople: it means they’re doing their jobs. And that is what we — and more important, the artists — should want them to do, if only because it enables them to give the artists something else that artists want (and need, and deserve): a paycheck. When television is at its best, as it’s so often been in recent years, it’s not because the suits capitulate. It’s because they’re smart enough, or confident enough, or desperate enough, to bet that creative freedom can itself conduce to profit.

Which means that the protagonist of this ongoing drama is neither the artists nor the suits. It is the people who enable creative freedom to be profitable and garbage to be profitable, too, who made a hit of M*A*S*H as well as of Charlie’s Angels, the people to whom the artists and the suits are both appealing. The protagonist, of course, is us. If television is so much better than it used to be, that’s because we’re better. What’s more, we were always better. It’s just that television had to change before it was possible for anyone to see that.

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’s most recent book is Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press). His article “A Foreign Cause” appeared in the April 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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