by Brian Maloney
The shows that they watch, shows like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, are ratings juggernauts. They win their respective time slots every time a new episode airs and their syndicated episodes have high ratings as well. To put these shows on at dinner time in the Philadelphia area, where I live, was a stroke of genius for the networks that chose to do so. They knew that they had viewers ready to leave their televisions on during dinner time, and once the show was over in the half-hour dinner block, they would run the same show again to keep those viewers right where they wanted them. It’s possible for these shows to run without continuity or out of order. They can be aired without having season long story arcs. Viewers can watch any episode at any time and not have to worry about what is going on. The concept of each show is simple enough for the casual and longtime viewer to be able to enjoy the show equally.
Whenever I visit my parents around dinner time, my dad has the television on. This is not uncommon. Around this time however, there are only a handful of syndicated comedies that he will watch. And most of them make me leave the room. When I complain to my parents about how terrible these television shows are, they reply that after working all day they just want to “veg out.” So what does this comment say about my parents? Like many Americans at the end of the day, my parents are tired of thinking.
This does not mean that my parents are stupid or lazy. It just means that I am experiencing entertainment in a different way than they are used to. There are talk shows devoted to specific television shows now. Viewers can use specific hashtags during the program to tweet their feelings and read others feelings on the same subject. It is a new way of conveying feelings over entertainment that is unique to the internet generation. So while I may not like the shows that my parents watch, I can’t blame them for watching. Those shows rely on an old model of television. Something that the executives know has worked in the past and continues to work today.
During the Thursday night comedy blocks, NBC and CBS are frequently competing. CBS has Big Bang at 8 PM, while NBC has countered with a carousel of shows consisting of Community, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock. Why has NBC had such a hard time competing with CBS’s Big Bang Theory? Is it due to the revolving door of comedies that they have kept spinning? I believe it is because each one of these shows is a “thinkers” comedy with season long story arcs and sophisticated humor.
Now that viewers have any television show they want to watch in an instant through programs such as Netflix and Hulu, the older generations stick to what they know. Are they afraid of change? This seemed apparent when NBC gave over the late night reigns to popular-with-the-younger-generation’s Conan O’Brien. Most of the viewers who watched The Tonight Show ending up choosing David Letterman over O’Brien, which, according to the ratings, never happened when Jay Leno was at the helm. According to the Associated Press Conan had been, “averaging 2.5 million nightly viewers, compared with 4.2 million for Letterman's "Late Show," according to Nielsen figures.” It seemed as though the audience could not relate to O’Brien’s absurdist form of comedy and for that and poor ratings he was quickly booted. Jay Leno was promptly reinstated as the new/old host of Tonight. The changing of the guard was not embraced.
Traditions are supposed to be passed down from parents to children and I believe this includes entertainment choices as well. There are things that my parents have passed down onto me that I still partake in. There are still shows that I will watch with my parents that we all enjoy such as Boardwalk Empire. But when I try to tell them to watch a show they rarely get into it.
A show like Breaking Bad was another show that I tried to get them to watch and one that struggled in its ratings throughout most of its run. However, its cult following saved it from cancellation. Through word of mouth most viewers caught up due to DVD’s or Netflix in time for the final eight episodes. The viewership jumped through the roof from the season four finale to the series finale. According to Entertainment Weekly, Season four’s finale racked in 1.9 million viewers while the season five finale had 10.3 million viewers tune in. This is a testament to how good the show was, and a direct response from viewers who wanted to watch something of a higher quality on their Sunday evenings. The younger generations are calling for better programming.
This new generation of viewers is experiencing things in a vastly different way than the generations that came before. With the birth of the internet, everything we do can be recorded. We experience things differently. If we want to relive a moment over and over again we have the ability to. Everything can be over analyzed to death, if we want, and most of the time it is. When we watch a television show we can immediately relive it. As soon as a show ends we can use the internet to read how other people feel, what critics think, what certain references mean, and we can even express our own feelings through different media.
Our parents have never encountered television, movies, and other experiences in that way until now. Television that they grew up with was usually a single camera show with a laugh track. And another reason for the popularity of these shows that are winning in the ratings is the inclusion of the laugh track. Most of the comedies that lead the ratings include a laugh track; a designated cue of when to laugh. However, comedies are just beginning to break that mold such as the multi-camera comedy The Office on NBC which does not use the laugh track. This in turn causes the viewer to think about the previous joke and lets them decide when and when not to laugh.
Every generation wants to pass down traditions to their children, but their children change. Trends change, as does the thinking from generation to generation. My grandparents liked forms of entertainment that my parents did not understand, and I know that my children will not understand some of my entertainment choices as well. And that’s why I don’t blame my parents for liking what they do. The shows that they enjoy get good ratings because they are smart; they play to their audience and know what they like. As do my parents. They know what they like. And so do I. Even though I don’t always agree with their choices, I can see why they make them. They want to be entertained when they come home from work, and if that doesn’t involve a show that I like, then so be it. But I still reserve the right to roll my eyes, and leave the room.