Friday, October 13, 2006

Whatever happened to predictability?

I recently stumbled across the site Trivial TV, which catalogues TV ratings since 1983 (an invaluable resource if ever there was one), and I realized something: The family sitcom, once a staple of television, has mostly disappeared.

In the '80s and '90s, shows ranging from The Cosby Show to Growing Pains to Family Matters to Home Improvement ruled the roost. Now, I'm not going to say that many of these shows were very good as art or even as superior entertainment (only The Cosby Show with its essentially plotless ruminations on the small rhythms of family life even came close -- and that was only in the show's first season), but there was something nice about having a niche that certain sitcoms filled.

As a kid, I didn't watch a lot of television outside of the Sesame Street/Mr. Rogers power combo in the afternoons on PBS. But I do remember that every night after dinner, Wheel of Fortune would come on. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we watched fairly tame sitcoms. Who's the Boss and Growing Pains on Tuesdays. The Cosby Show and Family Ties on Thursdays. Now, when I watch most of these shows as an adult, they seem kind of painful (particularly Growing Pains, which was my favorite show on TV as an 8-year-old -- no really!), but as a kid, it was something approaching family bonding time -- not even close to eating a meal with my family or playing with my father and sister, but a kind of bonding all the same, learning what, exactly, my parents did and didn't find funny and just how much they could tolerate the silly voices of Bill Cosby.

Now, of course, there are few of these family friendly shows on the air. Even Ugly Betty, which is mostly a pretty good show that would teach kids about female empowerment and good body image and family togetherness (subtly, I might add), featured an oral sex gag in the pilot. While it was the sort that could be easily brushed off when kids asked questions, I can see where many families would wonder, "Why bother?"

I don't mean to sound prudish. I'm tremendously happy that television has shows that are raw and bracing and adult. I'd much rather have The Wire than Growing Pains and Battlestar Galactica than Family Ties. But, honestly, when I have kids, what will there be for them? A bunch of cable shows full of kids who think good acting means screaming loudly? Even Who's the Boss had a certain kind of production quality that these kids' cable shows just can't quite match.

The popular foe to blame when it comes to the demise of network family TV is the networks themselves. And, to be honest, the move of Friends to the family hour helped the networks see that there WAS money to be made from young urban hipsters such as myself in that time period. But it's not like they suddenly just stopped trying. ABC aired family sitcom after family sitcom, trying to reclaim the success of Home Improvement. Lots of quality family dramas (other than 7th Heaven) have come and gone -- Everwood, Freaks and Geeks, Friday Night Lights (which seems almost certain to follow this same path). And the best family sitcom in years -- Everybody Hates Chris -- has trouble drawing more than three million viewers.

The trouble isn't that the networks abandoned families -- it's that they saw that there wasn't money to be made off of them anymore, except as a niche market. Why has the audience turned away like this? I don't know. But it's a shame.

Because, honestly, who will think of the children?

I'll write more about this once I finish parsing some statistics. Needless to say, it's all ironic.

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