tymshft

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How demographics changed daytime television after 1980

Before I get into this tymshft post, I wanted to briefly go off-topic and mention a wonderful Google+ community called Alternate History. Perhaps someone there will write a “what-if” scenario entitled “What if U.S. morning television had remained the same, despite demographic change?”

Of course, the person who wrote such an alternate history would have a tough task, since many people today would not recognize daytime television from the 1970s.

Young people today may not believe it, but in the 1970s daytime television was entirely occupied by game shows, soap operas, and inconsequential talk shows. The reason for this was an admittedly sexist assumption – since the men of the house were working outside of the home, and since the women of the house were housewives, some light entertainment was needed to occupy the women when they weren’t cleaning and baking.

While one can truly question whether this was ever true, the three (at the time) commercial television networks certainly thought it was true, and structured their programming accordingly. Unbeknownst to the network television executives, however, the demographic landscape had changed. There were fewer and fewer housewives as more women worked outside the home. More and more of the daytime television audience consisted of college students. And at the same time, technologies were emerging which allowed someone to videotape a show during the day, and watch it in the evening. Because of these factors, daytime television presented an opportunity for the networks to present edgy programming – if only they realized it.

The first network to engage in such programming was NBC. While some would later say that Fred Silverman’s genius was responsible for the change, even Silverman himself subsequently admitted that it was all an accident. NBC was being trounced by CBS and ABC, and Silverman was desperate to try anything to escape the cellar. While much of his enormous energy was concentrated on NBC’s prime time schedule, he also paid attention to other parts of the schedule. NBC had a young comedian named David Letterman under contract, and Silverman decided to put him in the morning slot, cancelling several game shows to make way for The David Letterman Show, which premiered on June 23, 1980.

It soon became apparent that this was not your typical show for housewives. One of the earliest indications of this was the appearance by Andy Kaufman as a guest.

By the end of the summer of 1980, David Letterman was the most talked-about personality on television. People began to call in sick or claim to have car problems so that they could stay home and watch the show – in fact, “Stupid Car Problems” became a recurring theme on the show.

Networks, as they always do, attempted to counter-program Letterman’s success. While ABC’s morning show with Andy Kaufman himself was not successful, CBS found its own comedian, Jay Leno, and built a show that eventually surpassed Letterman’s. After the Kaufman failure, ABC tried a different tack, luring newsman Edwin Newman away from NBC to launch a hard news show called “Dayline.”

By 1985, the transformation of morning television was complete. The soap operas and game shows were moved from the morning schedule to the evening schedule, although many commented that “Wheel of Fortune” and “Dallas,” while successful in so-called “prime time,” could never make it in the mornings. (Even today, the block of programming between 8:00 pm and 11:00 pm Eastern time is still called “prime time,” despite the fact that this is an almost forgotten part of the schedule.) Daytime, however, was a hotbed of activity, as hard news shows hosted by Newman, Pat Buchanan, and Al Franken battled against edgy talk shows from Leno, Letterman, and Phil Donahue. ABC tried to buck the trend by heavily promoting a lighter talk show from Oprah Winfrey; the show, however, was a complete failure, and was quickly replaced by a hard news show with Geraldo Rivera.

While many of the daytime personalities have changed – Al Franken, Pat Buchanan, and Phil Donahue left television for the U.S. Senate, and Leno and Letterman have long since retired – the nature of daytime television programming remains the same, even in 2013. But today’s stars well understand their debt to the pioneers of daytime television. Recently, talk show host Michele Bachmann scored a ratings coup by having David Letterman and Jay Leno appear on her show together. The segment was moderated by Bachmann’s co-host, the resurrected 1980s failed star Oprah Winfrey.

I hope to write a future post to explain how Leno, Letterman, and the like contributed to other massive changes – the proliferation of flexible work schedules, technologies that allowed time-shifting of television shows for those who didn’t have flexible work schedules, and the massive increase in people who worked from home.

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