The Evolution of Television
The first TV I remember owning was a small black and white set. We didn’t get a color set until the mid-80s. At first we got just the basic 12 channels at the time, and it was a dial you had to turn to change the channels. As a little girl, I remember watching mostly PBS, including Sesame Street, Rainbow Rollercoaster, 3-2-1-Contact and The Electric Company. I also watched Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo.
I watched The Smurfs, The Snorks and other cartoons on Saturday Mornings. There were also a few channels that played an hour or so of cartoons after-school. I remember He-Man, She-Ra, Transformers and Inspector Gadget were among the after school programs I caught on regular TV. Now there are no more Saturday Morning Cartoons. All cartoons air on various cable networks.
I very distinctly remember when Adelphia Cable came to town and we all got cable in the early 80s. I was about 5 or 6 years old I think. There basic 32 channel line-up included Nickelodeon. In the early days they simple re-broadcast things from the BBC. I remember seeing You Can’t Do That on Television, Turkey TV, The Little Prince, The World of David the Gnome, The Mysterious Cities of Gold and Spartkus and the Sun Beneath the Sea. My mother enjoyed Nick At Nite, which included re-runs of TV shows from the 50s and 60s. I remember Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Read Show, Mr. Ed, Lassie and many others.
When I was growing up TV was predictable. The season started at the end of August or beginning of September and ran all the way through to May, with re-runs appearing briefly during the holiday seasons. What happened to re-runs? These days rather than run already-aired episodes, they simply replace it with a mid-season show. Before the internet and TiVo, if you missed an episode, you counted on catching it in rerun.
TV has always been a mix of hour long dramas and half hour sitcoms. In the 80s I watched mostly sitcoms like Family Ties, Growing Pains, Kate and Ally, Designing Women, Murphy Brown and The Golden Girls. They were family friendly for the most part. It wasn’t until I was 10 or 11 that I started watching hour long dramas like Quantum Leap. I also watched the nighttime soaps Dallas and Falcon Crest sometimes too. Later, shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place were popular. ER became a favorite in the 90s as well.
Slowly throughout the 90s TV started evolving and changing. Reality TV started off with a few shows here and there like Road Rules and Big Brother, but by the year 2000, it seemed like they were EVERYWHERE. Sitcoms all but disappeared as network execs cashed in on the cheaply made so-called Reality Show, which was anything but real. I really hated TV in the early 2000s save for a couple hour long dramas.
Some 15 years later, TV has continued to evolve. While Reality Shows like Survivor, The Bachelor, Shark Tank and Kitchen Nightmare still have their niche, new sitcoms have popped up. 2 Broke Girls, Mom, Mike and Molly, The Middle, The Goldberg’s, Modern Family and Blackish all follow the same sitcom formula while while managing to be fresh, modern and relevant in their humor. Hour long dramas have remained strong as well. There once was Alias, 24, Lost and Revolution. And now we have Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Castle, Person of Interest, Grimm, Once Upon A Time and The Blacklist.
Yes, once upon a time there was only there major networks: ABC, NBC and CBS. PBS was always there, but never really huge in terms of viewers. In the 80s Fox made a name for itself and joined the ranks as a major player. The WB and UPN also made their way into our homes and hearts. TBS and WGN eventually became staples as well. The Disney Channel was once a special channel you had to pay for and they aired both old Disney movies and an occasional new program. Now the Disney Network is part of the standard cable package and the only place to watch Teen Stars like Brittany Spears, Lindsey Lohan and Miley Cyrus burn brightly and die out.
And although Spanish Channels aired places like Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California in the 1980s, it was rare to see them up north. Now even tiny Midwestern towns get Univision! The presents of Spanish Channels as part general cable package reflects the growing presence of the Hispanic population throughout the United States.
Unexpectedly, Cable TV has become the place for new edgy shows. Sex in the City and Girls portrayed sex and relationships in the most blunt and realistic manor ever. And viewers responded by embracing the characters who were more like them then say those they saw in Soap Operas. Soap Operas remain in the daytime line-up, but their popularity has waned a great deal over the years. Only a handful remain.
With million dollar budgets, epics like Game of Thrones, The Tudors, and The Borgias replace movie series at the theater. Though only about 12 episodes per season instead of 24, they deliver movie quality work with character development that only a TV series can provide. That is part of the reason box office numbers have declined over the years. Why go out to see something great, when that something great is right in your living room or on your laptop?
Sons of Anarchy and other shows on FX push the FCC limits on adult language, sexuality and violence. They consistently produce shows that would be PG-13 or Rated R if released in the theater, which would have been unheard of back in the 80s. HBO and Showtime aired adult programing, but cable viewers had to pay extra for them. Now, many cable packages come with FX, AMC and A&E, all which offer quality programing for no extra charge. AMC’s The Walking Dead and A&E’s Mad Men have become the most watched shows on television and they aren’t on the basic networks.
Cable, unfortunately, has become rather costly though. The basic packages don’t offer much for the price and the larger packages offer way too many choices. You get only a few good channels and a ton of crappy ones thrown in. Luckily, alternatives have popped up. During the 2000s everything switched to digital. Now instead of rabbit ears that get nothing, you can purchase a digital antenna and get a variety of channels for free. Which channels depend on where you live, but it does offer you a chance to avoid a large monthly bill.
Recently Netflix, Hulu and other websites have taken over. If you have an internet connection, you can often stream TV shows free or for a small fee. Many young adults I know have completely done away with cable in lieu of Internet TV. That way they can pick and choose what they want to watch without surfing though 300 channels. The trend today is to binge watch whole seasons at a time instead of one episode a week. The ease of availability of DVDs and Streaming shows lets the viewer watch when they can fit it in rather than scheduling their lives around when their favorite shows air.
I’ve been watching TV for about 35 years, and during that time it has changed quite a bit. We’ve come a long way. It will be interesting to see where we are at in another 20-35 years.