On the Reputation of CBS as the Older Viewers’ Network
I have recently had occasion to think about CBS’ reputation as, well, an older person’s TV channel.
One explanation for that reputation I have come across is that CBS was the king of the ratings back in the ’70s and early ’80s, thanks in large part to Norman Lear ( All in the Family was the #1 show on TV for five straight years, and he had Maude, and Good Times, and The Jeffersons), and Dallas, and MASH, and Hawaii Five-O and Kojak, and 60 Minutes, and The Dukes of Hazzard, and Magnum P.I. and . . . well, you get the picture. In the 1973–1974 season it had nine of the top ten shows, eight the next season, and if there were ups and downs after that, between the 1979–1980 and 1984–1985 seasons on average seven of the top ten and eleven of the top twenty rated shows were running on that one channel, a truly extraordinary proportion of the market. Of course, CBS’ hit machine virtually sputtered out later in the decade, though (one was more likely to see NBC at the top, with the likes of Cheers and Family Ties and The A-Team and The Cosby Show). The result was, presumably, that anyone who was still watching CBS was someone the channel won over in earlier, better days, who were sticking with their declining hits down to the end after most others jumped ship, were simply in the habit of watching the channel when they sat down in the front of the TV, and so because they were on the channel and see a promotion and maybe get interested, or just happened to have the channel on when the show started, wound up following shows that the rest of the public never noticed or never got interested in because their attention was directed elsewhere. And because the hits that made CBS viewers of people were from years earlier, and because it seems to have been the case that compared with younger viewers those older viewers were in their TV viewing habits more prone to follow channels than shows, that audience was on the whole older than the average.
I find this explanation plausible. But it also seems to me a matter of such hits as the channel managed to have when it faltered. Consider the biggest hit CBS generated between Magnum and the end of the century — Murder, She Wrote. Indeed, for the decade or so from 1986–1987 on, by which point most of the older hits were either gone from the air (like the Norman Lear sitcoms or MASH), or in decline (like Dallas), 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote were the CBS shows far and away most likely to make the Nielsen ratings’ top ten — a weekly TV newsmagazine then late into its second decade (which had the curmudgeonly Andy Rooney for a mascot), and a “cozy” mystery series about a sixtysomething mystery writer solving murders — which were hardly the thing to bring in that younger crowd. And even if other CBS shows also made appearances in the top ten, like Touched by an Angel and Everybody Loves Raymond (a show about watching grouchy middle-aged people fighting each other when they were not fighting with even grouchier old people), they, along with more modest but still important successes like Diagnosis: Murder and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, affirmed the impression of a channel catering to an older audience. Then, as a result of holding on to viewers won in past days while finding it tougher to get new viewers the channel’s viewers were on the whole older; the channel’s management responded disproportionately to material aimed at an older audience; and so CBS kept the “old people’s shows” on the air, and picked up new ones; while younger viewers passed on its offerings.
Still, when considering why this went so far it may be helpful to remember that, contrary to the solipsistic view prevailing, the outcome of a competition is never a matter of just what one party does, but what the competitors do as well — and it was the case that in these years the competition was getting a lot tougher, with there being that much more to draw away the attention of those younger viewers. After all, between the mid-’80s and mid-’90s the country saw the arrival of three new broadcast networks, all of which were very aggressively chasing younger viewers, and in at least some degree catching them. FOX had 21 Jump Street and Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five, while the newer and even more youth-oriented WB had Dawson’s Creek and Felicity and 7th Heaven (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed and Smallville for sci-fi fans), and UPN had Veronica Mars. Cable was scoring, too, with MTV, for instance, airing shows like Beavis and Butthead and The Real World. Meanwhile, if NBC had Matlock, The Golden Girls and Empty Nest it also had its family sitcoms, and much more youth-oriented shows like the college-set A Different World, and not long after, Friends, and Seinfeld (which if not being about teens or twentysomethings was not exactly about “adults” either, and still commanded quite the youth audience at the time), while ABC had its own youth-friendly TGIF block.
Not unrelated was that matter of “edginess.” Where CBS had once been more daring and provocative than its rivals (as with the Norman Lear sitcoms, the politics of which ABC refused to touch — as one sees in its completely-missed-the-point attempt at All in the Family-minus-the-politics, the short-lived The Paul Lynde Show), it was now the channel known for offering safe, cozy stuff as the others pushed the envelope, with CBS offering Touched by an Angel as ABC contributed to broadcast TV’s last truly great bout of moral panic over sex-and-violence-on-TV with NYPD Blue. (Indeed, it may say a lot that CBS’ line-up from those days now makes up such a large part of the weekday lineup of the Hallmark channels.)
Certainly CBS did make some effort to vary its offerings that way, scoring cult successes with quirkier and sometimes more daring material (like The Flash, or Picket Fences), and even a measure of real commercial success (as with Northern Exposure), but when it broke with its pattern it seems to have more often been a matter of trying to make something out of its rivals’ declining properties and outright cast-offs, and often not succeeding (as with its picking up longtime TGIF staple Family Matters well past its peak, only to see the onetime top twenty hit fail to make the top hundred in its one season on the channel, finishing out its run at a dismal #108). The result was that even when the channel started having top ten-caliber hits with a broader appeal — indeed, began setting trends with shows like the reality TV-pioneering Survivor and forensics show boom-launching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (I didn’t say they were good trends, just that CBS launched them) — the old person’s image stuck and the channel never quite shook it. But then TV was becoming an old person’s scene anyway, the young inclining toward the Internet, especially after streaming took off, and indeed a glance at the Nielsen ratings these past few years, dominated by the NCIS franchise, and The Big Bang Theory franchise, and Blue Bloods, make it look like it’s the ’70s all over again, with 2020–2021 seeing it ratings champion for thirteen straight years.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.