On Feb. 28, 1983, the series finale of the television show M*A*S*H ended with a bang. The single two-and-a-half-hour episode, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” garnered the highest viewership in television history, surpassed only by Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. The M*A*S*H finale gathered 121.6 million viewers in America alone, and this year TV Guide ranked it as TV’s most unforgettable finale.
In the 21st century, however, it seems unlikely that any TV series could attract the huge following that M*A*S*H, I Love Lucy, Bonanza, The Cosby Show and other network shows did in 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
One reason for this is the hundreds of channels and viewing options now available via cable and satellite. In addition, many of today’s shows target only a portion of the viewing audience instead of trying to attract all ages and interests. Finally, many people feel they’re too busy to watch much TV, or they prefer to devote their spare time to social networking.
While shows like Jersey Shore, Pawn Stars, Gossip Girl and Myth Busters have their avid followers, television may, in fact, have less of a grip on Americans and the American family than it once did.
TV’s golden years
Fairmont math teacher Ken Pifer recalls the earliest days of TV. “I remember back in the early ‘50s, when we first got a TV. It was black and white and only had three channels,” he said. “Back then, there were a very limited amount of shows, and they were pretty specific.” Pifer’s early days of television were often limited in television watching as well. “I was only allowed an hour of television, Monday through Thursday. Sometimes, my family and I would watch a show called The Fugitive together.”
Like Pifer, Fairmont English Department Chair Penni Meyer recalls watching television when she was young. “I watched all kinds of sitcoms … shows like All in the Family and M*A*S*H,” she said. “Most of the time, I was watching with my parents.”
Fairmont English teacher Emily Bruzzese also watched TV with her parents when she was a teenager. “We’d watch The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Roseanne – pretty much all sitcoms that centered around a family,” she said.
Diff’rent strokes for different generations
Although past generations of teenagers often watched TV with their parents, students now say that they often don’t. Sophomore Chloe Beaman doesn’t feel TV does anything to bring her and her parents together. “I watch CSI and Ghost Whisperer, but never with my parents,” she said.
Junior Charlie Friend agrees that watching TV with his parents isn’t a common occurrence. “I watch a lot of SpongeBob Squarepants and Jackass,” he said. “My parents and I rarely ever watch TV together – a half-hour a night at most, and not many nights out of the week.”
Both students and staff think this shift in viewership results from TV being more specific in its audiences. “I used to watch The Ed Sullivan Show with my parents,” said Meyer. “But it seems now that TV shows are a lot more divided. A lot of shows are aimed at specific age groups – you have your SpongeBob aimed at the younger generation and reality TV aimed more at the teenagers and young adults.”
Friend concurs with Meyer’s view. “Since I watch a lot of shows like SpongeBob, I don’t really have much to watch in common TV-wise with my parents.”
Fairmont English teacher Josh Oliver also believes that television does more target marketing. “It’s absolutely more specific,” he said. “It’s more made for niches. Teenagers and tweens are pretty much the biggest market these days, and it shows.”
Bruzzese agrees that families don’t spend as much time together around the TV. “Shows used to be a lot more conducive to the family setting,” she said. “But I think students are simply too busy to watch TV. With Facebook and homework taking up a lot of their time, it would take a bit of effort from families to have TV time.”
Does Facebook time replace TV time?
In fact, Nielsen Company research shows that Americans spent 53.5 billion minutes on Facebook in May 2011, the most recent month for which data was collected. That amounts to about 101,720 years of viewing in just one month. (It doesn’t sound quite as bad when you look at how many hours the average visitor in May spent on the site: 6.4 hours per month.)
Facebook has 206.2 million users in the U.S. alone, and many see the social-networking site as time-consuming without the benefit of the family unification that TV once brought. “I don’t really think that Facebook is really a unifier,” Beaman said. “It really seems pretty mindless to me.”
Bruzzese agrees, but only partially. “I don’t really think it’s brought us together as much as TV did,” she said about the website. “It really only brings us together electronically, but not really that much in terms of families.”
Oliver thinks Facebook is a unifier, but in a different way. “Facebook and other social media do allow connections, but not in the same way as television,” he said. “They’re meant more for connections over distance – not necessarily for parents and students in the same room. Television still fills the role as the thing that draws us together.”
Oliver agrees that today’s teenagers have much less time on their hands. “If students have a show they really want to see, they’ll make time for it,” he said. “But a lot more students have jobs and are involved in extracurriculars. That’s certainly changed things.”
Finally, Meyer offers another reason why TV is less of a unifying force than it was for previous generations. “Back when I was younger, families only really owned one TV. Families that had more than one were rare,” she said. “But now it seems like almost every family owns at least a few televisions – one in the living room, one in the kids’ room, etcetera.
“I don’t necessarily think that people watch much less TV,” Meyer said. “It’s more that they just don’t watch it together.”