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Published: Saturday, 11/1/2008

Bad times come to TV s prime time

TV often gets a bum wrap as mindless mass entertainment. Perhaps. But it is calculated mindless mass entertainment. As such, prime-time pabulum is geared not so much to what people need to hear, but what they want to hear. And in general, people don t want to be reminded of how depressing and bleak their lives are when, in fact, their lives are depressing and bleak. Call it Nielsen s Law.

Since network television missed the Great Depression by roughly a decade, ABC, CBS, and NBC didn t have to address their roles in economic down times until the energy crisis of the early 1970s. (Not that TV execs chose to enlighten masses with mostly highbrow fare when times where good; The Beverly Hillbillies, The Flying Nun, and Green Acres were killing brain cells years before household budgets tightened.) But when faced with creating network programing during grim financial times, TV initially chose to address the inflationary elephant in U.S. living rooms and with much success.

In 1974, Norman Lear and his topical sitcoms All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude were in the top 10.

But as the inflation-choked economy worsened, a pattern of network disconnect emerged, and by 1976 escapist entertainment ruled the airwaves: Top 10 shows like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley provided a return to the good ol days of the 1950s, while Charlie s Angles and Three s Company introduced the mindless and vaguely sexist jiggle TV era.

A notable exception to this head-in-the-sand rule was the popular mountain family drama The Waltons, which was set during the Great Depression and aired during the recession.

By and large, people were generally turned off by network programming that tried to be empathetic to their economic despair.

I m sure to a certain extent when the economic situations in the real world are not so great people look more towards escapist television or escapist entertainment than when things are going well, said Earle Marsh, co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. It gives them a way of avoiding depression or mitigating the otherwise depressing aspect of their lives.

Kirk Baird



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