Module 3 — Television’s Attempts at Relevancy in the 1970s: New Kinds of Sitcoms

The family sitcoms of the 1950s had been an attempt to assuage Americans’ longing for stability at a time when Cold War anxieties demanded that the family serve as a secure, consumerist and conformist bulwark against Communism.

By the 1970s, it was clear to television executives that a younger generation had no interest in the lives of 1950s and 60s’ television families: young women did not aspire to become June Cleaver (the sweet but servile mother on Leave it to Beaver), “vacuuming in her pearls and high heels.” Young men did not want to emulate Ward Cleaver, having to keep his family “in white picket fences and new Fords.” (Judy Kutulus, in The Sitcom Reader, 1st ed., 53) By comparison to their parents who had been raised during the Depression, this younger generation of potential television viewers, babyboomers born between 1946 and 1960, were remaining single longer and had more disposable income — advertisers’ ideal audience. Thus, the networks developed new ways to measure audiences and market them to advertisers — segmenting audiences into specific age categories (called demographic analysis). Television executives were willing to accept a decline in the overall size of an audience if it was accompanied by an increase in the most desirable segment of the audience (from the point of view of advertisers that segment was age 18–34, urban, affluent and white).

The networks (CBS, ABC and NBC) responded with new programming meant to appeal to the tastes of this younger demographic, dumping the “hayseed” shows (e.g., Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction), which appealed primarily to older audiences, and retiring the “gimmick” comedies, escapist shows that had featured talking horses, flying nuns, favorite martians, genies and witches with magical powers, and my-mother-the car. These escapist programs showed no awareness of the political realities of the United States during the 1960s — realities that included urban unrest, civil rights protests, women’s liberation, gay rights, and the anti-Vietnam war movement.

By contrast, programming in the 1970s made an attempt at social relevancy, either by presenting more “realistic” characters sympathetically (Julia, NBC, Hal Kanter, 1968–1971; The Mary Tyler Moore Show, CBS, James L. Brooks, 1970–1977) or by using satire to examine controversial social topics (All in the Family, CBS, Norman Lear, 1971–1979; M*A*S*H, CBS, Larry Gelbert, 1972–1983). These shows were intended to reflect the sensibilities of younger adults and their feelings about the social, political and economic conditions that had affected them as they came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

Objectives

At the end of this module, students will be able to…

  1. Historically contextualize workplace comedies/dramas like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Julia, or satiric shows like All in the Family or M*A*S*H in relation to industry trends, the social conditions and political currents of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
  2. Become more adept at thinking about the complexities of audience reception: for example, by explaining the appeal of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, even to audiences who were suspicious of feminism, or by explaining why black audiences harbored ambivalent feelings about Julia, a show that featured a black professional, single mother who had assimilated into a white world. Alternatively, if students have chosen a satiric show (All in the Family or M*A*S*H), they should be able to grapple with how audiences responded in various ways to the social criticism in each of those shows.
  3. Explain how sitcoms of the 1970s developed new techniques of realism — in narrative forms, types of characters, new settings, and more relevant social themes.

Readings

  • Greg M. Smith. “What is realism, really?” chapter two in What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss. Routledge, 2011, 13–34. E-book available from Course Reserves. Objective 3. Estimated reading time: 60 minutes.

This engaging treatment of realism, as a set of techniques meant to give an illusion of reality, is a key reading, not just for this module, but for the remainder of the course. We will keep coming back to these concepts, so make sure you read this chapter carefully and understand the difference between realism and reflexivity (p. 32).

  • David Marc and Robert J. Thompson, “A Myth is as Good as a Smile,” Television in the Antenna Age (Blackwell, 2005), 89–110. PDF available from Course Reserves. Objectives 1, 3. Estimated reading time: 30 minutes.

This chapter has wonderful golden nuggets in it that give a vivid sense of what the television industry was like in the 1970s. For example, Sidebar 7.1. (p. 93) explains how television interrupted its regularly scheduled programs to present news coverage of national significance, Sidebar 7.2 (p. 95) lists the major political events of the 1960s and then describes the five most popular shows on CBS; and Sidebar 7.4 (p. 104), explains CBS’s defense of its political documentary, “The Selling of the Pentagon,” on First Amendment grounds. The section on regulation by the Federal Communication Commission (pp. 106–107) shows the extent to which this government agency was willing to go to exert control over an oligarchical industry and the concerns that the public had with cigarette advertising and the display of violence.

  • Josh Ozersky, “‘The Church of What’s Happening Now’: The Great Shift, 1970–1972,” chapter 3 in Archie Bunker’s America: TV in an Era of Change, 1968–1978. Southern Illinois University Press, 2003, 60–83. E-book available from Course Reserves. Objective 1. Estimated reading time: 30 minutes.
  • Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine, “Another Golden Age,” short excerpt from chapter 2 in Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. Routledge, 2012, 22–26. E-book available from Course Reserves. Objective 1. Estimated reading time: 10 minutes.

Activities

Watch the segment of Color Adjustment that discusses whether a “positive” image can also be an undesirable stereotype. This segment begins with Producer Hal Kanter explaining why he made Julia (42:31-). Although this clip might seem to be relevant only for those writing about Julia, in fact the general problem, of how to counter stereotypes without merely perpetuating them, is a problem that concerns all discourses of representation. This documentary will be required viewing for the next module as well.

Assignments

After completing this module’s viewing and reading, take a look at the discussion page for this module. Then, students may choose from among Julia, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family and M*A*S*H, selecting the show that aligns most closely with their interests. For example, students who have chosen Representations of Blackness as their track might want to seek out the most relevant episodes in either Julia or All in the Family. Students who have chosen Masculinity in Crisis or Patriotism Reconsidered, may want to select episodes from either All in the Family or M*A*S*H respectively. Be sure to pick out and read carefully from the assigned readings the articles that focus on the show you have chosen. For the full assignment details, see the separate assignment page here.

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