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Evan Shapiro

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TV: The Great Uniter?

Posted: 12/21/11 08:30 AM ET

Every Friday night, my kids, my wife and I boot up the TV and watch a week's worth of our favorite shows. We don't all like everything the same. Personally, I feel like Glee has jumped the shark, and it took a while for my kids to warm to the pitch black humor of Louie. Still, we watch it all, together (usually over Thai food). It's an important time for our family in which issues arise that normally would not. Sometimes my wife and I must answer questions we'd rather not, and sometimes my kids get questions they'd rather avoid. But after a long, rushed, hectic week apart, this "TV Time" brings us closer. Unfortunately, in this digital age, this is a rarer occurrence than you might think.

Once upon a time, in "the days before the 'Net," families all over America gathered together, in front of an electronic hearth, for "TV Time." Whether for Love Boat, Donny & Marie, M*A*S*H or a thing known as "The News," in this bygone era, everyone in the house simply watched the same thing, at the same time, in the same room.

As many a latch-key kid knows, this time together didn't always result in actual "together-ness." Sitting in silence, in the glow of a Zenith tube does not necessarily generate empathy or understanding. Despite sharing laughs with Jack Tripper or tears with the Bradfords, many American families still disintegrated, like the Louds. (Hey kids, in case you're wondering, these references are why Wikipedia was invented.)

No, "TV Time" didn't save the nuclear family structure -- in fact many say it helped accelerate its demise. But togetherness wasn't what made these shared experiences so important to American Life. It was the larger conversation -- and perhaps most importantly, the residual conflict generated by this collective TV watching -- that made America a unique, vital and influential society.

In 1972, the number one show in America was All In the Family. (Top 20 TV 1972.) The show got a 54 Share. Each time Archie and Edith sang "Those Were The Days," 54% of people watching television -- one out of every three Americans -- sat down to watch... together. Other shows in the Top Twenty that year included The Flip Wilson Show (44 share), Sanford & Son (41 share) and Mary Tyler Moore (39 share). These series were tame by today's cable standards, but considered dangerous at the time, dealing with heady and difficult stuff such as race, sex, drugs, feminism and class that had itched beneath the skin of American consciousness yet had been taboos in popular culture.

When the Jeffersons found out their future daughter-in-law was half white, Archie, Edith and the WHOLE country -- black and white -- reacted, together. For the next six days, no matter where you lived or what you did for a living, THAT'S what you talked about. When Meathead and Archie battled on Viet Nam and Free Love; when Flip Wilson and Redd Foxx tackled race and class warfare in front of HUGE and DIVERSE audiences; when Mary Tyler Moore stood her ground as an unmarried professional woman; we all watched, together, and then we debated the subject as a country until the next episode. In 1973, on PBS' An American Family, the Loud clan fell apart, in front of our collective eyes in jaw dropping fashion. It was not the pseudo-scripted 'reality' of the Kardashians, it was actual real life, right in our living rooms. Lance Loud's coming out was a jolt to the American psyche, one that reverberated for decades. It would not have been, had we not been forced to watch, as one.

Back then -- Black and White, Urban and Suburban -- you just watched. Then you argued it out with the Meathead or Archie in your life. Often, you learned something about the other side and sometimes, you even found some common ground. Partly because of the subject matter, partluy because of the writing, but mostly because of the shared experience, "TV Time" helped America work a lot of its shit out. It may have been messy, but things did change.

In 1982, the number one show, Dallas, was still pulling a 45 share. (Top 20 TV 1982.) When someone tried to kill JR Ewing -- it was a shot heard 'round the world. The Top Twenty of that year was mostly fluff like Dukes of Hazzard (37 share), Joanie Loves Chachi (35 share - apparently a LOT of people loved Chachi) and The Love Boat (exciting and new at a 36 share). The networks had abandoned the risk-taking programming of a decade earlier in favor of bland mindlessness that appealed to the lowest common denominator. The large audiences were due to limited choice, not true viewer desire.

By 1992, cable TV and VCRs had disrupted the collective TV experience. Roseanne and 60 Minutes attracted big audiences, but they were hardly diverse. Cosby pulled in a relatively diverse audience, but half the share of voice of All In The Family. (Top 20 TV 1992.) And, while the Huxtables put a new kind of role models on TV -- the first real middle class African American family in prime time (sorry, Weezy) -- it's a stretch to call the show controversial. The mainstream TV that show could create a cross-cultural collision of viewpoints had lost its place on the dial.

"TV Time" has all but disappeared. According to Nielsen, from 1992 to 2006, "co-viewing" -- TV watched by an entire household -- fell by 22% on Broadcast and by 36% on Cable. TV viewing had become an asymmetrical and solitary experience. Americans had gone to their respective corners, taking comfort only from stories and voices that reinforced what they already thought.

Today, with few exceptions, TV shows are ghettos. OK, so American Idol draws a big and somewhat diverse audience. But with a 22 share, it's a much smaller definition of 'mass' than it's predecessors. Most of TV today appeals to only White or Black or Hispanic, Female or Male, Young or Old, Conservative or Liberal. Television has lost the power of "AND".

The upside to hyper nichification? Producers no longer have to cater to the lowest common denominator, and therefore can take much greater risks. Homeland, Parks & Recreation and Louie would likely not have made it on TV in 1972, 1982 or 1992. These shows aren't meant for the Masses, and knowing that allows artists and programmers to be boldly and aggressively creative.

There is considerable downside to these TV Ghettos, however. It is rare for ideas or communities to collide the way they did in the Bunker household. Few performers open eyes and minds the way Flip Wilson did. The water cooler is now less a debate than an echo-chamber. News channels preach to their choirs, without truly hoping to convert anyone. Meatheads talk to Meatheads, Archies talk to Archies and never the twains shall meet. As a result, the tenor of our cultural conversation has become increasingly bellicose -- we scream our opinions at each other, void of empathy for the other point of view.

Yet, there is hope. There have been recent signs of TV togetherness. In the last five years (according to Mr. Nielsen), "TV Time" is on the rise. Broadcast "co-viewing" is up 8% since 2007, and Cable "co-viewing" is up more than 12%. This does not even account for the fast growing "digital co-viewing" on the Twitter and the Facebook. Tune in to Twitter, and it's clear that "TV Time" is making a come-back, especially among the younger and plugged-in. Whether on social media or in the analog version or actual human companionship, it seems people are watching TV together again.

It's unclear if this has had an effect on the national conversation, but it's conceivable that as people experience more and more TV content as a collective, they will embrace their differences. Shows like Teen Mom, Glee and Intervention draw diverse audiences and take on difficult issues. A new reality TV series called The GOP Debates has drawn record-sized audiences. While it's likely that many progressives tune in to deride the participants, social media and polling seems to demonstrate that many on both sides of the aisle have watched the first debates of their lives, because they sense the import of the issues and the need to pay attention.

No, TV is not the cure for all society's ills. It is doubtful that a few episodes of Pawn Stars are going to bridge the great cultural chasms of our time. BUT, it's been proven that eating dinner together as a family is a key factor in successful parenting. And, in our house at least, our weekly "TV Time" does make a big difference. It helps us share a collective window on the world and talk about something other than ourselves.

So I appeal to you, Dear Reader. In the year ahead, given the choice of watching your favorite show, alone, on your iPad, or trying something new and watching with your friends, your neighbors or even (gulp) your parents -- do the unexpected. Reach out and share the experience -- and perhaps a new show -- with someone else. This holiday season, as you gather with your multi-generational loved ones, there's a literal smorgasbord of great TV for you to share (including marathons of Arrested Development and Portlandia on IFC -- yes, a shameless plug, but c'mon I do have a real job). There's bound to be something that everyone hasn't seen, and with the amount of great stuff on TV right now, it's likely something that will spark a conversation you didn't expect to have.

TV Time with Bunkers, the Sanfords and the Louds may not have saved the American family, but it did stimulate important national conversations the way that our national media should. Despite fragmentation, television remains the most powerful media on the planet. If we want to progress as a culture, Americans MUST cross the borders of cultural divide and attempt to make peace with the diversity of our society. In my humble opinion, "TV Time" is a crucial tool to re-open the lines of communication and tear down the silos we've built around ourselves.

This New Year, make time for "TV Time."

 

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