Within the last few weeks, The Mrs. and I have become full-fledged 21st century TV-equipped householders, adding HD and streaming video capability on the flatscreen in the living room. Being able to watch pretty much anything we want, at any hour of the day or night, something that millions of Americans take as their birthright, is in fact a ridiculous luxury. We like to think it adds greatly to our quality of life. But does it? There are allegedly 250 channels on our satellite package, although vast numbers of them are devoted to shopping and/or Jesus and/or reality shows. We’re probably not regularly watching many more than the handful that used to be available to us out of the air when we were kids.
Because there was less to watch in those days, the feeling of shared experience as a viewer was greater. There were certain things that everybody saw; even a run-of-the-mill drama airing at 9:00 on a Wednesday night on a second- or third-place network could draw a bigger audience than the top-rated shows do now. Parents and kids watched together, adding a family dimension to the memory of having seen the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, or Roots, or the M*A*S*H finale.
If you need evidence of the lasting impact of this kind of TV viewing, look no further than the tributes to Sherman Hemsley and Chad Everett, both of whom died yesterday. Hemsley played George Jefferson for 11 seasons; despite a long career after The Jeffersons went off the air in 1984, everybody knew it would be mentioned in the first sentence of his obituary, and it was. Everett’s rank in the TV pantheon was not nearly so high, but in the 70s, he was probably as famous as Hemsley, thanks to his role on Medical Center. It ranked among the top shows on TV in only one of its seven seasons, and it went off the air in 1976, but as Everett is eulogized in the media, the show is prominently mentioned.
Thirty or 40 years from now, when one of the stars of Modern Family or Mad Men dies after a long career in TV, will their roles in those long-gone TV programs be so prominently mentioned? I wonder. As popular as those programs are, they reach a far smaller number of viewers than The Jeffersons and Medical Center did in their time. Now maybe the volume of eulogies will be similar, because as much media as there is now, there will probably be more years from now. But because we don’t share viewing experiences in numbers over time as we did in the days of the three-channel universe, stars don’t become as ubiquitous as they used to be. With the passing of television icons from the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s, what’s passing with them is an era of mass culture that’s never coming back.