Relevance Programs Change Entertainment Standards Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Television programs dealing with contemporary social problems and concerns became very popular in the 1970’s, reflecting the social and political tensions of the times.

Summary of Event

American television executives are part of the same general culture as everyone else in the United States, and their ideas about society come from the same sources as do those of other Americans. When these sources show, or are perceived to show, a change in the public mood, television executives want their industry to change to meet that mood. This desire to change rests on the fact that the major networks tailor their programming schedules toward what they think people want to see. For this reason, hit shows soon spawn numerous imitators. Although the public mood is always changing, a limited number of types, or genres, of television programs exist. When a new public mood is perceived to be developing, therefore, television producers try to develop programs that can use the old genres and still suit the new mood. Television;relevance programs [kw]Relevance Programs Change Entertainment Standards (Jan. 12, 1971) [kw]Entertainment Standards, Relevance Programs Change (Jan. 12, 1971) Television;relevance programs [g]North America;Jan. 12, 1971: Relevance Programs Change Entertainment Standards[00160] [g]United States;Jan. 12, 1971: Relevance Programs Change Entertainment Standards[00160] [c]Radio and television;Jan. 12, 1971: Relevance Programs Change Entertainment Standards[00160] Lear, Norman Wood, Robert D. Yorkin, Bud Moore, Mary Tyler

In the early 1970’s, executives at one television network, the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), led by Robert D. Wood, correctly sensed a shift in the American public’s mood and began to change the network’s programming. At the beginning of the decade, CBS broadcast a large number of shows with rural orientations because the majority of its audience consisted of small-town and rural people over the age of fifty. Popular programs of the time included Mayberry RFD Mayberry RFD (television program) and The Beverly Hillbillies. Beverly Hillbillies, The (television program) During this period, advertisers on CBS were becoming concerned for two reasons: The network’s aging audience was spending less and less money on advertisers’ products, and the CBS shows did not appeal to younger audiences in urban areas who had more money to spend.

Wood perceived that the social mood in the United States indicated that Americans were ready for television programs that combined anxiety with hope. Television producer-director Bud Yorkin agreed—he thought that young people especially were ready for a new approach to television entertainment. Many young people were challenging established assumptions, or knew peers who were, and they wanted entertainment that dealt with the issues of the day and that could prompt debate.

In Norman Lear, CBS found a producer who knew how to develop these kinds of programs. Lear described himself as a social and political liberal whose politics informed his sense of comedy. His All in the Family, All in the Family (television program) Television programs;All in the Family an adaptation of the British comedy show Till Death Us Do Part, was the first of the relevance programs; it premiered in January, 1971. All in the Family’s main characters, Archie and Edith Bunker and their daughter and son-in-law, Gloria and Mike Stivic, provided one setting through which American television viewers could confront controversial topics ranging from abortion to impotence to racism. Viewers often were offended by the ideas espoused by conservative Archie Bunker and liberal Mike Stivic, and that was the point—to get Americans to examine ideas.

With the success of All in the Family, Lear was not confined to producing a single show. Edith Bunker had a fictional cousin whose guest appearances on All in the Family led to the spin-off series Maude, Maude (television program) which first aired in September, 1972. On her own show, Maude had a maid, Florida, who became so popular that she was given her own show, Good Times, Good Times (television program) in 1974. The Bunkers’ next-door neighbors, an African American family, made a success of their neighborhood business and moved from Queens to the upper East Side of Manhattan in their own spin-off show, The Jeffersons, Jeffersons, The (television program) which premiered in January, 1975.

Other networks followed the CBS success formula. The National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC) produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Tyler Moore Show, The (television program) Television programs;The Mary Tyler Moore Show[Mary Tyler Moore] which in fact began airing in September, 1970, several months before All in the Family. The NBC show, however, took longer to develop an issue orientation and throughout its run featured relevance with a softer edge. The Mary Tyler Moore Show focused on the life of a single career woman, Mary Richards. Although the program included some feminist themes, the lead character was also a traditional female in that she was the “heart” of her work group. She was young enough to attract young female viewers but pliant enough not to be a threat to traditional males and housewives. Mary Richards was not a virgin, was not vapid, and was not always intimidated by her boss, all characteristics notably different from previous single female characters on American television. The network made some concessions to the conservatives of the 1970’s, but Mary remained a relevant figure in moderate guise.

An entirely different kind of relevance show was M*A*S*H, M*A*S*H (television program)[Mash (television program)] Television programs;M*A*S*H[Mash] which premiered in September, 1972, and quickly developed a cultlike following. The show reflected a wave of antiwar and antiauthoritarian feeling in American society, but it was so popular that it was rarely attacked by the political and religious right wing despite its clearly pacificist and liberal orientation.


The CBS relevance shows and their imitators changed the course of television programming in the United States. By 1975, relevance programs had swept much of the silliness of the 1960’s from the screen. Although the American Broadcasting Company took a different approach with its nostalgic Happy Days Happy Days (television program) (premiere January, 1974) and that program’s spin-offs, even in such programming relevance gained an occasional footing. Relevance programs destroyed the old taboos and set television free to deal with current social problems.

The impact of relevance programs on television can be seen in the changes over time in the kinds of programs that have been popular with the public. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the most popular programs included I Love Lucy, I Love Lucy (television program) Dragnet, Dragnet (television program) and Gunsmoke; Gunsmoke (television program) the most popular actors included Lucille Ball, Ball, Lucille Jack Benny, Benny, Jack Dean Martin, Martin, Dean and Red Skelton. Skelton, Red The most popular shows had been industry leaders for years, with little or no change in content or in characters. With the first broadcast of All in the Family on January 12, 1971, CBS completely changed the rules.

The programs of the 1960’s involved a good deal of silliness, as in I Love Lucy, or dealt in unambiguous confrontations between good guys and bad guys, as in Dragnet or the nostalgic Gunsmoke. The new relevance programs all had conflict at the heart of their appeal. The conflict, however, involved controversy rather than clear-cut issues. The positions presented by the relevance programs were open to varied interpretations. Archie Bunker was either a boorish bigot or a hardworking, lower-middle-class male, depending on the viewer’s perspective. Surveys of audiences who watched relevance shows indicated that viewers generally received reinforcement for whatever views they brought to the shows. This was a major change from the single clear message sent by the average television program in the preceding decade.

In part, the impact of relevance programming was a measure of changes in American society. Programming of the 1960’s reflected the stable society of the 1950’s. As the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and urban violence destroyed that stability, many Americans began to look for programs that reflected the world they lived in every day. Of the top ten shows of the 1968-1969 season, none remained on the top-ten list for 1973-1974.

Because reality was often grim as well as confusing, television viewers still wanted some degree of escape. The greatest success of relevance programs came when they dealt with serious contemporary problems in humorous context, as the use of humor made problems bearable. Perhaps the best example of humor in the midst of gritty reality was M*A*S*H, a program set in Korea during the 1950’s conflict while the real world was watching bloody scenes from the Vietnam War on the nightly news. The M*A*S*H characters expressed the rising doubts, growing opposition, and increasing horror of the society associated with war but tempered these sentiments with quiet humor and regular doses of slapstick.

Even as the use of humor forced the television-viewing public to think seriously about some current situations, another impact was taking place in program content. Television of the 1960’s was largely populated by whites. When other racial or ethnic groups appeared, they were usually on shows featuring only those groups or were playing minor roles as menial workers. With relevance programming came more diverse racial and ethnic portrayals. On All in the Family, the Bunkers had black neighbors. On The Jeffersons, the focal black family had white neighbors, and the show featured an interracial marriage. This increase in ethnic and racial diversity on television was seen not only on entertainment shows but also on educational programs. Perhaps the ultimate example of racial and ethnic integration was found on the children’s show Sesame Street, Sesame Street (television program) which premiered late in 1969. This program at various times featured Native Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, Caucasian Americans, and Hispanic Americans in its urban setting. The treatment of issues on Sesame Street, even though at a child’s level, qualifies the show as relevance programming.

Relevance programs also sounded different from the television shows that preceded them, with the use of everyday language that was frequently ungrammatical and crudely vigorous. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, standard grammatical English was the regular fare on television unless a character was given deliberately “picturesque” speech, as with the Clampetts on The Beverly Hillbillies. On relevance programs, dialogue sounded very much like what would be heard on a typical street. As is often the case in relevance programming, Norman Lear was the pioneer in introducing new language. Racial epithets flew freely on All in the Family as Archie Bunker spoke in the words used by many people. The groups referred to in these terms did not take offense at their use because Archie was clearly a bigot and such language was to be expected of his character. In addition, his views were rebutted by son-in-law Mike Stivic and others, providing balance. Lear’s opinion was that by using these words openly he was depriving them of their power to shock and to offend.

Relevance programming also had an impact on nonverbal communication. Good guys no longer wore white hats. The man wearing old clothes and sporting long hair and a beard might be a policeman or an attorney or a schoolteacher. The styles of grooming and dress seen on television came to reflect the styles seen on real people across the United States.

Relevance programming was ideal for the 1970’s, but when the mood of the United States became more conservative, as indicated by the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, the public lost its taste for many of these shows. The television networks began to take fewer chances and relied on less controversial programming. Scriptwriters, however, retained their new freedom to express controversial opinions at least occasionally. Television;relevance programs

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Condensed, updated version of the material in Barnouw’s three-volume set A History of Broadcasting in the United States, published 1966-1970. Provides thorough coverage and analysis of television from I Love Lucy to the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan presidential campaign debates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Campbell, Sean. The Sitcoms of Norman Lear. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007. Presents analysis of Lear’s television comedies during the 1970’s, with emphasis on their social relevance. Includes bibliography and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Examines how television is produced, describing the power held by small groups of top executives, writers, producers, and agents. Discusses what makes good television programs good and why some catch on while others fail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldstein, Fred, and Stan Goldstein. Prime-Time Television. New York: Crown, 1983. Combines text and pictures to present a vivid history of television from 1948 to 1983. Almost every program or series that was on the air for at least one season is included in this comprehensive work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. Rev. ed. New York: Perigee, 1988. Covers virtually every situation comedy shown on American television from 1949 to 1988. Describes the shows and also offers discussion of related social reference points and analysis of why the shows succeeded or failed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Brian G., and Robert S. Alley, eds. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Collection of essays discusses how and why television shows fall into a limited number of genres as well as the cross-fertilization of genres. The genres addressed include everything from police shows to church services.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tueth, Michael V. Laughter in the Living Room: Television Comedy and the American Home Audience. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. Comprehensive study of the most successful comedy programs ever seen on American television examines the cultural reasons for the shows’ success. Includes bibliographic references and index.

All in the Family Confronts Controversial Issues

M*A*S*H Reflects Antiwar Sentiments

Happy Days Exemplifies Escapist Television

The Jeffersons Signals Success of Black Situation Comedies

Decline of the Big Three Networks

The Cosby Show Makes Television History

Categories: History