TV History

Collage Designed And Created By Jason Jones

Collage Designed And Created By Jason Jones

Although the landscape of Television’s changed dramatically, since it first became embraced by Americans in 1947, in many ways TV hasn’t changed at all. Most viewers have no idea, why the Prime-Time schedule, kicks off in September, (the answer’s revealed below) or that the tradition’s a carry-over from radio. The question in 2015, however is if a system that originated in the early 1930’s in another medium, still works for Television today? The most frequent complaint I receive about Television’s, why do shows go on either extended, or frequent hiatuses, during the TV season. The answer’s due to maintaining the same structure that TV used during its first 20-years, of popularity, does that formula still work today?

Television first started becoming commercially viable in the United States, nearly 70-years ago and though many of that era’s shows, now seem crude and rudimentary, others developed formats still in use today. Many of the first Television stars, made the transfer over from radio, which entertained Americans, for nearly the two previous decades. Others, were former vaudevillians like Milton Berle who got dubbed “Mr. Television,” in the late forties and dominated homes on Tuesday nights. New York City reported that the water pressure would change radically, during commercials, due to the mass exodus to the bathroom.

Why does the Prime-Time schedule begin in September? Because that’s when American car manufacturers, a major advertiser on Radio and TV, introduced their new model’s for the following year. For the first few episodes of every season, the programs were loaded with automobile manufacturers, touting all the new models of their cars. Pretty much a case of the tail wagging the dog, but Radio and Television lived exclusively on advertising dollars. This was decades, before cable and satellite radio, where subscriptions, pay the bills.

The format started by radio, then carried over to TV, called for a show to run new episodes 39-weeks a year, then a Summer Series, would fill the void for the remaining 13-weeks. Audio-tape, didn’t exist during radio’s heyday, or videotape for many years in the world of television, so repeats were difficult to air. You’ve likely seen old TV shows on kinescope, a process where someone would actually use a movie camera aimed at Television screen, to send to the Western States, as we lacked the coast to coast coaxial cable setup we acquired in the sixties.

In the late sixties, the medium cut back new episodes to 26, to fill those 39-weeks, thus the repeat came into being. If you watched the show weekly, you got disappointed when repeats aired, however in the days before DVRs and VCRs, it gave viewers a chance to catch shows they missed the first time around. It also encouraged viewers to watch other shows, some of which became massive hits, after getting low-numbers earlier in the campaign.

Shows such as All In The Family, Hill Street Blues and Cheers, eventually all reached the number one spot in the Nielsen ratings, after looking like they’d get cancelled before its completion, started airing repeats. Of course the major networks, showed more patience with a show back then, especially if the series met the parameters of a quality show.

The networks altered the dynamics again, in the nineties, when they reduced their orders on episodes to just 22 per-season. Summer replacement series were no longer the norm, so more than half of the viewing year became repeat broadcasts. Cable networks, starting with HBO and Showtime, started producing Original Series, that began siphoning off a good percentage of the networks viewers. Before long, other networks, such as USA, AMC, TNT and A & E, followed suit. AMC of course produced two groundbreaking series in Breaking Bad and Mad Men and now have two new series, Halt And Catch Fire, which debuted last summer and Better Call Saul, which is currently airing.

TNT has become a prominent source of quality programming, introducing, Murder In The First, The Last Ship and Legends, last summer, all of which will return in a few months, for their second series. Our cousins from “Across The Pond,” have established BBCA, which includes the legendary series Doctor Who and one of my favorite series, The Musketeers, now in its second season.

To counter the competition, the networks introduced these “hiatus-periods,” for many of their series, sometimes replaced by limited run series, or a series of specials. We now commonly hear references to the fall season, or the winter season, in network promotions, terms that suddenly appeared out of nowhere a few years ago.

So now we’ve come full circle and face the question at the beginning of this article, does the system still work in 2015 and if not, then what can be done to improve things? With all the competition, from cable networks and new sources such as Netflix, Hulu-Plus and Amazon, is the system that the networks still hold into, now outmoded?

Many of the reasons behind the system still in use, are no longer relevant. During the days of radio shows and the first couple of decades of Television, Sponsors could host a TV show, leading to titles such as the Texaco Star Theater, Starring Milton Berle and the Kraft Music Hall. That changed due to a ruling in the late sixties and led to the variety of commercials we currently see. Secondly, there’s no longer the big kickoff to the model year for cars, so there really isn’t any reason, why the TV Campaign kicks off in September. With MLB playoffs and the World Series, the start of the NFL season and election coverage, once every four years, is September still the best time to start the season?

If we divide our 52-week year by four, we come up with the number 13. Would having four 13-week seasons of series, be preferable over the system now in place? After all how many series, can truly come up with 22 superior episodes, especially after the show’s been around the block for a while? For a series in its first couple of campaigns, the creative people are bursting at the seams with creativity, but as season ten of Supernatural attests to, it’s really rough creating 22 great episodes ten-years into a series. What if Supernatural only had 13-episodes this season and got supplemented by a spinoff series, concentrating on reoccurring character Charlie Bradbury, called The Adventures Of Charlie? Could something like that work for networks and viewers alike?

An idea that I’ve advocated for years, borrowing another concept from the British, limited run series, designed to tell an entire story in a ten-episode cycle, so the whole story’s completed in the show runner’s heads’ before they even hire a cast member. It’s actually recycling a concept from American TV in the seventies, when networks got hooked on miniseries. Some of those shows are now looked upon as some of the finest products in the history of the medium, unfortunately like most concepts in TV, it got overused and some very mediocre series, sullied the waters.

Perhaps by cutting back on older shows to 13-episode seasons, and making limited run series a part of their annual scheduling, the networks then could up the orders to new series, such as Forever, Gotham, Scorpion and other new series to a 26-week schedule to help eliminate those annoying breaks in the schedule.

You quite possibly have lived with 24-hour news networks your entire life, however there was a time not all that long ago that newscasts were mainly shown at designated times. For almost forty-years, the network nightly newscast was a staple in most homes in our country. News anchors were highly respected figures, the keepers of the information that spanned the globe, the men whose job it was to tell us what was happening with national and world figures. How once again we made it through a span of 24-hours without the planet stopping its daily rotation around the sun. They showed us the triumphs and the tragedies, the acts of the great and powerful as well as the conditions of our weakest and most vulnerable. Telling their viewers of stories from Anytown, USA to the Far East.

Television presented the networks national newscasts right after the dinner hour (usually 6:30 pm or 7:00 pm EST dependent on the market) so that the family could catch up on the world’s events, before airing their prime-time lineup. Network affiliates would then broadcast their local newscast at 11:00 pm, which more times than not were the same stories that were on earlier that evening. However if a major story did occur during prime-time hours, the networks would break away from normal programming to alert viewers. There were many times over the decades that regular programming would be suspended for the evening due to a national tragedy.

Back in the days that the networks ruled the airwaves, the news division would fight the entertainment division for air-time. Despite the high and lofty hopes of many in television’s infancy, the medium’s main function was to entertain the viewers. That was what sold soap and deodorant which is the way they paid the bills. It did not prevent however a strong presence by all three networks news divisions, as “NBC White Papers” and “CBS Reports,” an ongoing series of specials dug deeply into the issues of the day. Although the shows never garnered large ratings, it fulfilled the networks public service obligations and earned them good will from many corners.

The Sixties was the age of the Space Program in the USA and TV had a huge role to play as this nation fulfilled former President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. That promise was kept as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon reciting the historic words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as millions of people around the globe watched that moment simultaneously.

The network nightly news anchor held a prestigious spot in American life during the Sixties and Seventies. Whether it was “everybody’s Uncle” Walter Cronkite on CBS, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and John Chancellor on NBC, and Howard K Smith, Harry Reasoner and Frank Reynolds on ABC, millions of viewers welcomed  these men into their homes five nights a week. Viewers looked upon them with dignity and respect and they took pride in showing as little bias as possible when delivering the news of the day.

Although national newscasts stayed the same half-hour length through the years, the network affiliates started filling their late afternoon/early evening hours with more newscasts. First the nightly newscast went from a half-hour to an hour, then some stations tried programming more news at 5:30 pm, it wasn’t long before you had network affiliates that ran news from 4:00 pm to 7:30 pm five nights a week. Local newscasts became profit centers for their stations and they rode that horse as long as they could.

Although there were rumors for years that national newscasts would expand to an hour, nothing ever developed on that front. There is a good possibility that even in the age of cable and the internet, we could still be operating under that same template today, except for an event that rocked the world in a myriad of ways; the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

When the former Shah of Iran came to this country for medical treatment in November of 1979, Iranian terrorists seized the American Embassy taking 66 United States citizens hostage and in the process greatly effected the flow of history from then on. One of the things the situation created was an ABC newscast broadcast at 11:30pm on the network’s affiliates called “America Held Hostage Day: One.” The final broadcast of that show under that title was Day: 444, but it was far from the final broadcast of that newscast.

Re-named Nightline it still airs 35-years later, now after the Jimmy Kimmel Show, but more importantly it showed network executives that Americans would watch news content regularly late at night. That may have been the spark that ignited life into the behemoth that we live with today, a smorgasbord of news networks. Not long after Nightline took on its new moniker, the networks started running all night newscasts, actually an hour of content rerun until the morning shows started. Soon there after Ted Turner launched the Cable News Network and the rest is history.

There is not a shade of doubt that we have far more content in 2014, then we did back in 1979. The real question is in an age where many people can’t name their congressional representative, are we any better informed?

TO BE CONTINUED:

I have always proudly proclaimed myself as “A CHILD OF THE MEDIA,” being a member of the first generation that was born with a TV set in their home. If memory serves, it stood about five feet tall and the front cabinet could not have been more than a foot wide. The screen was most likely between seven and ten inches and produced a satisfactory black and white image. Although Color TV was heavily promoted by television manufacturers in 1956, they were a rare item in most working-class homes. We would finally acquire our first color set when I was ten; after convincing my parents it was a must-have item as all three major networks would be broadcasting their entire prime-time lineup in the color format.

A person from 1956, would probably be as amazed by the medium’s evolution as someone from 1900, seeing television in the fifties for the first time. That analog set with its knobs and buttons, cathode-ray, tubes and antennae that our family had when I was born is as out of date and useless as a buggy-whip in today’s society. We now live in the digital age, with high-definition transmissions and seeing a 42 inch set is now common place, however there are screens far smaller than the one I grew up with as many people watch their favorite shows on their cellphones.

The changes in our receivers is just one of many changes as TV has come of age. Both the content and the suppliers of our entertainment have been radically transformed over the last 30-years. The word “BROADCASTING,” constantly used in conversations about the medium; is actually a misnomer. The days of television being a true broadcast-medium ended with cable television infiltrating homes and the Networks ending up with smaller sharers of the pie.

Back in the day when three networks had an iron grip on the industry, TV programmers tried to bring every viewer to the table with their shows. If you weren’t a fan of Westerns, you knew there was likely a variety show on one of the other networks and perhaps a half-hour comedy on the third. If you resided in a big enough market, there was an independent station or two, until the UHF frequency made more room for programming. Every market also had a PBS station, however their viewership was far below their commercial competitors.

The more diverse your lineup was would determine how many eyeballs watched your programming. CBS usually dominated the ratings, although ABC flourished in the mid to late seventies. NBC, under the leadership of Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff ruled the airwaves in the eighties by having the courage to program shows that bent the envelope, including Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and even the Cosby Show, which was the first TV show to portray a black family with both the mother and the father professionals.

Cable TV became common place in our country during the eighties and suddenly our choice of what to watch grew bigger each year. That would also be the end of the “BROADCASTING ERA” in television. The medium had evolved into “NARROWCASTING” or niche broadcasting, with each outlet attempting to reach their target demographic. TV watching stopped being the communal family event it had once been, as each member of the brood had their own set and watched the shows that interested them.

The eighties also brought along another piece of technology, that would change the medium and the viewing habits of the audience. Within a few years almost every home in America owned a VCR, making the viewer more of a master of their domain. If your favorite show was on at an inconvenient time, no problem! You just recorded the show and watched it at your convenience. The VCR also gave people the opportunity to watch an uncut blockbuster movie in the privacy of their own home and at any time they wanted to view it. That technology may seem stone-age if you are a millennial, but it set the foundation for what the medium is today.

The DVR is now our recording unit of choice and we are no longer restricted to watching our favorite shows on televisions. We can reach shows, on our phones, our tablets and our laptops. Cable now faces new competition in Satellite providers and the Internet is a burgeoning force in the war for viewers. Every network has their own website and almost every one of those sites video-stream their prime-time programming lineup. Even the Nielsen Company has had to make changes due to this new frontier, as they now allow DVR viewing added to a show’s number when it originally airs.

The once dominant Networks are now taking risks on programming and that can only benefit the most important people in this dynamic, the viewer. With major cable outlets producing land-mark shows such as the “Sopranos”, “Breaking Bad” and “Justified”, the Networks have recently stepped up the level of competition. Shows such as “LOST”, “Fringe” and this year’s Rookie Of The Year “The Blacklist”, prove that the Networks can stand toe-to-toe with any competition if they remain determined.

In very many ways, this is a “GOLDEN AGE” for television and we at Not Just Another TV Site are stoked for the future, not just this upcoming September, but for months and years to come. We plan to talk about all aspects of the medium, providing show-recaps as well as discussing how TV handles news, sports and a variety of other subjects. All TV shows should come to the table with this implicit promise, to entertain, educate or inform and the best shows cover all those bases. That is what we hope to carry out here at Not Just Another TV Site and we hope you come along for the ride.