Updated: Nov 13, 2019
Baby Boomers were the first generation to grow-up with television. (Which is probably one of the reasons we’re so screwed up.) But TV then was nothing like TV now. So much has changed since those days. We didn’t have nearly as much to watch but, as a result, we were watching it together. A television show could capture the hearts and minds of the entire nation and unite us in cultural conversations.They called them “water cooler shows” because that’s where everyone supposedly gathered to talk about them at work. Which is stupid because I don’t think I ever talked to anyone around a water cooler, other than to ask them to change the bottle for me.
These days, TV audiences have been fragmented by too many program choices, time shifting technologies and on-demand options. Now when somebody asks me if I’ve seen some great new show they’re watching, my frustrated response is usually, “I never even heard of it.” These “water cooler shows” have become an endangered species and, like any endangered species, I think they’re worth saving. If we can’t save them then we should at least remember what it was like when we had them.
The popular shows of my childhood sparked lively intellectual discussions. We enthusiastically debated the burning questions of our time like who’s hotter, Ginger or Mary Ann? If the Professor can build all those complicated contraptions, why can’t he patch a hole in the side of a boat? Why does a hot dog make Patty Duke lose control? What exactly is she doing with them? But there was never any debate over who was the better Darren.
There was a time when we all knew the words to our favorite show’s theme songs. Classics that spelled out the premise in under 90 seconds like Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, and The Beverly Hillbillies. All these years later, I still remember the lyrics to those songs. I just can’t remember where I put the remote control. Some of these songs even became Top 10 hits like Secret Agent Man, Welcome Back, Kotter and Hawaii Five-0. It’s been so long since a TV theme song made the Top 10 that, the last time one did, you could listen to it on a cassette tape.
There was real value in our commonly shared culture. It bonded us with people who we might not have anything else in common. In my old neighborhood, we used to gather on summer nights on our front stoops and re-tell plots from old Twilight Zone episodes, like we were telling ghost stories around a campfire. You could only see The Wizard of Oz once a year, so when it was on every child with a TV set was watching it. Can you imagine telling a five year old girl today that she can’t watch Frozen for another twelve months? And once we were old enough to stay up late, we all watched Johnny Carson before we went to bed. His frequent guests like Don Rickles, Burt Reynolds, Carol Wayne and even Robert Blake (he was a lot more fun back then) were like favorite relatives who would tuck us in at night.
In those days, a series like Roots reached an average audience of over 80 million people an episode (while raising the social awareness of the nation). Approximately 83 million fans tuned in to find out who shot J.R. on Dallas (while lowering the collective I.Q. of the nation). More than 106 million of us watched the final episode of MASH (which still holds the record for the most viewers of any scripted TV episode, and probably will forever). But recently they made a big deal when the Game of Thrones series finale got less than 20 million viewers (which now holds the record for the most disappointed fans). These days, the bar for what qualifies as a “hit show” has been set so low that even Peter Dinklage can get over it.
Shows back then spawned a slew of catch phrases that we constantly repeated and thought just kept getting funnier every time we said them. Show’s like Get Smart had us giggling over “Would you believe…”, “Sorry about that, Chief” and “Missed it by that much.” Star Trek had us regularly quoting “To boldly go where no man has gone before”, “Live long and prosper” and “Beam me up, Scotty.” The grandfather of all catch phrase shows was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which introduced many seriously silly one liners like “Sock it to me”, “Here comes da judge” and “Veeeery interesting, but stupid.” Most of these classic lines would just sound like nonsense to anyone who didn’t grow up with them but for those of us who did, they’re like secret passwords that get us into an private club.
Every generation had its own shows that gave them a slew of memorable catch phrases like Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and Seinfeld. Until this generation, where there has been a significant dearth of them. Even The Big Bang Theory, which was the most popular sitcom of the past decade, could only squeeze out one pathetic catch phrase in its 12 year run. “Bazinga!” And I never heard anyone outside of that show ever repeat it. President Trump has actually had more famous catch phrases than any TV show in the past decade with lines like “Make America great again”, “Fake News” and “Mexico will pay for the wall.”
Perhaps the most glaring difference in the way we used to watch TV then and now is evident on the news. We used to get the news from trusted and objective anchormen like Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace. These days we get conflicting facts from biased and partisan anchors like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow. It’s not like we were ever all on the same page, but now we’re not even reading the same book. If you only watch the right wing programs you would think Trump is the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln. If you only watch the left wing shows you would think Trump is the worst president since the last republican president.
When I was a kid, my parents used to call me a “TV junkie” and I’ve been happily addicted ever since. But these days I feel like I’m OD’ing.
I used to watch anything and everything. (Except for the Real Housewives franchise. Those shows are the TV equivalent of chalk on a blackboard.) But even I can’t keep track of all the new shows anymore. It’s estimated there will be over 500 new scripted programs this year and nobody can count how many reality shows there are anymore. At this point, it’s like keeping track of the national debt. You might as well just have a giant digital clock where the numbers are constantly running up.
In my lifetime, we’ve gone from eight broadcast channels to hundreds of cable networks to online services that now have, literally, millions of channels. YouTube alone has over 23 million channels, which I am afraid to look at for fear of what of what I’ll find there. (BTW – that’s mostly what your grandkids are watching these days.)
How do TV critics have the time to watch all the shows they have to review? How do Emmy voters possibly see each of the programs competing for awards? How can a TV junkie like me know which are the shows I’d most like to see and where I can find them? Why do I keep asking all these rhetorical questions that you couldn’t possibly know the answers to?
Since people now watch their shows on different media platforms and at different times, “spoiler alerts” have become a major source of contention. They have been known to spark anything from verbal abuse to physical beatings. If you don’t want to know what happens on your favorite program before you get around to seeing it, you’d better not watch TV, listen to the radio, or go anywhere near the internet. Don’t go on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram and don’t even think about picking up your smartphone. Better not talk to any friends, enemies, colleagues, casual acquaintances or - just to be safe – any strangers. Basically, you’ll just want to just go live in a cave until you can binge watch and catch up.
One of my favorite lines from the play Inherit The Wind is “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.” Ironically, the price we pay for this new Golden Age of Television is the death of television as a mass cultural event. In these times, when politics has divided the country and technology has replaced human interaction, the unifying effects of our national TV obsessions are sorely missed. We've already forgotten the lessons of Archie Bunker, who taught us how a family with different political views can live together. Now we can't even discuss politics at Thanksgiving dinner.
There are so many advantages to this era of “Peak TV”, as they like to call it now. We can watch whatever we want, whenever we want. The audio, the picture quality, the special effects, the budgets and the talent are improving exponentially. The sheer multitude of shows offers a mind-boggling array of niche programs aimed at audiences that have long been underserved, while creating unprecedented opportunities for diversity in both the creative arts and business sides of the industry. But perhaps the greatest achievement of all is that nobody will ever again utter the words, “There’s nothing good on TV tonight.”
I feel fortunate that I shared the unique television experiences of my generation. Future generations have gained a lot, but they will never know what they missed. “Water cooler shows” may never happen again, but at least the old shows will live in reruns forever.
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