Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era

Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era

Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era

Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era


Archie Bunker. Jed. Laverne and Shirley. Cliff Huxtable. Throughout the entire history of American prime-time television only four sitcoms have been true blockbusters, with Nielsen ratings far above the second- and third-rated programs. Weekly, millions of Americans of every age were making a special effort to turn on the set to see what Archie, Jed, Laverne, and Cliff were doing that week. The wild popularity of these shows-- All in the Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, Laverne & Shirley (and its partner Happy Days), and The Cosby Show --left commentators bewildered by the tastes and preferences of the American public. How do we account for the huge appeal of these sitcoms, and how does it figure into the history of network prime-time television?

Janet Staiger answers these questions by detailing the myriad factors that go into the construction of mass audiences. Treating the four shows as case studies, she deftly balances factual explanations (for instance, the impact of VCRs and cable on network domination of TV) with more interpretative ones (for example, the transformation of The Beverly Hillbillies from a popular show detested by the critics, to a blockbuster after its elevation as the critics' darling), and juxtaposes industry-based reasons (for example, the ways in which TV shows derive success from placement in the weekly programming schedule) with stylistic explanations (how, for instance, certain shows create pleasure from a repetition and variation of a formula).

Staiger concludes that because of changes in the industry, these shows were a phenomenon that may never be repeated. And while the western or the night-time soap has at times captured public attention, Blockbuster TV maintains that the sitcom has been THE genre to attract people to the tube, and that without understanding the sitcom, we can't properly understand the role of television in our culture.


This little book isn’t meant to be anything like a full picture of the television industry, American broadcasting audiences, or the events around the four situation comedies studied. Rather it is designed to be provocative—a gesture toward thinking about and researching the public reception of TV programs in relation to the institutional dynamics of networkera television.

The process of writing this book has been somewhat eyeopening. As I shall discuss in chapter 1, I am considering four blockbuster sitcoms, defined as a series program that achieved audience ratings markedly higher than those of any of its contenders, week after week, after 1960 (usually the date selected as the time by which almost every U.S. household had a television set and enough stations operated to provide adequate competition for audiences). The programs that meet these criteria are The Beverly Hillbillies, All in the Family, Laverne & Shirley (with Happy Days), and The Cosby Show.

While doing this research, I enjoyed presenting these criteria to academic colleagues and asking them to guess which programs fit this definition. Invariably, their first answers included The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, Roseanne, and Seinfeld. Although very popular programs, none of these sitcoms fits this definition of a blockbuster. What these programs do coordinate with is, likely, academic taste preferences. I spend a great deal of effort (and some charts) in chapter 1 exploring what exactly were the . . .

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