On television, the 1970s were the decade of sex and violence, t & a, Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley, Archie and Edith, Begin and Sadat, Farrah Fawcett, Deng Xiaoping, Kermit the Frog, Mr. Cholesterol, Pope John Paul II, Mike Wallace, Kunta Kinte, Mary Hartman, Richard Nixon, Ayatollah Khomeini and ;red Silverman.
It was the second-best of times, it was th second-worst of times. It was Down Time. It was Primal Time. It was a time of video synthesizers, video beams, video discs and video games -- all in the vanguard, we were persistently told, of a video revolution that will liberate us from the grips of "Happy Days," Sheriff Lobo, Geraldo Rivera and the Incredible Hulk.
Like all decades, this one was cyclical. Cop shows came in a wave and left in a hail of bullets. Jiggle girly shows bounced their way into America's lap. At the beginning of the 1970 prime-time network TV season, there were 15 hours of musical-variety programming in the schedule each week. At the beginning of the 1979 season, there was none.
In some senses, the decade was full-circular. As it began, public TV's imported serial, "The Forsyte Sage," was just making its impact. Soon a new TV form, the mini-series, was being hailed as the medium's salvation, a respite from Humdrum weekly shows.
Beyond the usual mercurial trends in programming, the '70s may represent a much larger cycle nearing its end -- the era of network domination of television. Technological break-throughts involving cable TV, pay TV, and national cable networks linked by satellite became so clearly a threat to the networks that ABC started advertising its prime-time movies with the legend, "Another Outstanding Movie on Free Television."
In 1970, there were only 2,490 cable TV systems in the United States, serving 4.5 million subscribers. By the end of the decade, the number of systems had risen to 4,150 and the number of subscribers to 15.5 million. There could be 30 million by 1984 and in addition to the viewers siphoned off by cable, network audiences will be offered such other diversions as the video disc, video cassette recorders, home computer terminals and over-the-air pay TV.
No one knows exactly which kind of television will dominate the '80s. But it is very unlikely the networks will retain as much of the pie as they have profitably enjoyed during TV's first three gold-mine decades.
At the same time, the networks showed during the '70s the ability to expand their audiences to take in new, converted constituencies. NBC's "Saturday Night Live" staked out fresh territory in TV demographics, luring back to TV members of a generation that had largely abandoned it. Advertisers found their socio-economic profile irresistible, and products rarely advertised on TV previously -- stero systems, wines, sports cars, motor oil, Perrier water, pregnancy tests -- were added to the list of TV conquests.
Television permeated American socity as never before, with broadcasting terms like "feedback," "interface" and "input" finding their ways into secular vocabularies. Rock groups with names like Television and The Tubes made albums with titles like "Remote Control." Some incorporated TV into their stage appearances: The Tubes with six TV sets displaying pictures on stage, the Electric Light Orchestra performing the ritual act of smashing TV sets to smithereens at the conclusions of their performances.
Although Nielsen reported a 3-percent decline in prime-time viewing in 1977, and although a Washington Post poll in late 1978 found a greater percentage of viewers than ever expressing dissatisfaction with TV, the industry as a whole suffered no economic aches whatsoever. It appeared to be inflation-proof and recession-proof, and nonprofitable hours of the broadcast day had all but disappeared.
Still, each new season's wagon train of flops cast further doubts on the efficacy of the network entertainment operation. In 1973, not one of the new series introduced in September made it into Nielsen's top 20 programs for the month. In 1979, more than half of the new programs that bowed in the fall were bow-wows by Christmas.
For the TV networks that gave America "Me and The Chimp," "The Montefoscos," "Supertrain" and "Mr. T and Tina," the 1970s may have been a last hurrah, with a decade of reckoning only a station break away.
Presidents of the three television networks began the '70s on a note of har-dee-har-har. In 1970, they told a New York TV critic that in the golden decade ahead, there would be much less stress on Nielsen ratings and the breakneck competition the ratings encourage.
This was followed immediately by the bloodiest 10 years of ratings warfare in the history of broadcasting.
But if it was a decade in which television persistently warded off all attempts at reform -- including a valiant stab by the House Communications Subcommittee to rewrite the antiquated Communications Act of 1934 -- it was also a decade in which TV became more of a political issue than ever. TV was a battered football for assorted coalitions of newly emerging media activists armed to the teeth with cleats.
Action for Children's Television (ACT) was the most productive. Though a frequent indulger in doctrinaire rhetoric, ACT succeeded in getting through new rules governing TV directed at kids and at ads used to sell them products their parents would have to buy. But efforts by the Federal Trade Commission merely to investigate the effects of ads on children were crushed by a timid Congress under heavy pressure from the powerful broadcasting lobby.
TV was blamed for much in the 1970s, especially violence in American society. It was claimed (but rejected in court) that an incident depicted in the NBC movie "Born Innocent" led to an attack on a teen-age girl. It was contended that ABC's telecast of the movie "Fuzz" inspired juvenile delinquents in Boston to imitate the immolation of winos -- just as they had seen it done in the film.
And in a landmark Florida trail, a defense attorney argued that his client, a shy teen-age boy, murdered an elderly neighbor because, while robbing her house with friends, he found a gun in a drawer and, conditioned by years of exposure to violent TV cops shows, proceeded to use it. A jury found the boy guilty nevetheless.
Dr. George Gerbner, at the University of Pennsylvania, revealed research that found heavy TV viewers more susceptible than other to what he called the "mean world syndrome" -- a TV-warped concept of everyday life as such hositle terrain that one felt lucky to get a day without assault. Near the decade's end, TV was also labeled a key factor in sharply declining scores registered by high school students on standardized Scholastic Aptitude Tests.
In 1972, a report by the U.S. Surgeon General established for the first time a "causal link" between violence on television and violent behavior in children. Concern over TV violence became so pronounced that in 1975 FCC Chairman Richard E. Wiley and network executives unveiled the allegedly voluntary family viewing plan. It restricted televised rapes and murders until after 9 p.m. Eastern time.
The plan was a fiasco from the start -- as network censors bowdlerized scripts into vanilla pudding for fear of public reaction -- and a judge later ruled the scheme unconstitutional.
The networks are attacked as well for a relatively new TV format called the docudrama, which ransacked headlines for fact-based fictions. Where the facts ended and the fiction began was an iffy proposition in programs like "King," "Helter Skelter," and "Tail Gunner Joe." Legal complications eventually doomed the form to near extinction, though a conference of Hollywood producers pleaded that the docudrama be kept alive.
Fear of controversy haunted the TV decade, but occasionally networks showed true grit. Though it neverously postponed a planned telecast of the anti-Vietnam War drama "Sticks and Bones," CBS was also the network which stood by the revolutionary Norman Lear comedy "All in the Family," which ABC had previously rejected as too hot. It turned out to be the most significant and best-written TV series of the decade.
And though the so-called Tiffany network saw its 20-year domination of the ratings crumbel before tacky competition from ABC, CBS at least had the satisfaction at decade's end of seeing its innovative "60 Minutes," an nonfiction, informational, CBS News magazine, become, frequently, the No. 1 show in the nation.
In programs like "Fernwood2Night," "NBC's Saturday Night" and "Second City Television," TV showed a new receptiveness to satire and ridicule of itself. Television loosened up considerably in the '70s, and occasionally the subject of TV was allowed a few moments of exposure on the almighty airwaves.
But more potent attacks on television came, as usual, from outside. In 1976, MGM released Paddy Chayefsky's sensational and combustible "Network," a condemnation of the TV business all the more forceful for being written by a veteran of its golden age -- the author, indeed, of the TV classic "Marty."
In Martin Scorsese's film "Taxi Driver," mass murder "Travis Bickle" seems placated until his television set, at which he is playfully aiming a gun, falls to the floor and explodes. And in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," a character nearly Bickle's equal in degree of pyschosis refers to television in a way that is both the exoneration and its condemnation: "That box," he says, "keeps me company. Even when I'm sleeping."
We leave the '70 wrapped in the security blanket of American television. A decade in which violence on TV was one of the most-discussed of all communications matters goes out not with a mugging but a hugging.
These were the sensitivity '70s, and on television, as they ended, the thing to do was to hug somebody else in order to help "get in touch with your feelings" -- one of the decade's golly-whomper cliches -- and, presumably, to get in touch with someone else's feelings, too.TV has become a hugathon staged to help soothe psyches in an Age of Anxiety that television itself has helped bring about.
One comedy show like "One Day at a Time," studio audiences cheer when combatative or jeopardized characters make the great statement of hugging one another. On game shows like "The $20,000 Pyramid," "Family Feud" and "Match Game," it is now de rigueur for contestants to hug each other or celebrity guests upon winning anything. The hug is now a basic phrase in the vocabulary of television behavior.
And television behavior has a definite influence on viewer behavior. Consciously or not and willingly or not, people learn how to behave from television and the movies. Phrases like "go for it" and "give it your best shot" are popularized and promulgated by TV. The notion that to hug someone else is a trumphal humanist gesture is put across through endless repetition on programs of fact and fiction.
Singificantly, one of the big song hits of the decade was "Feelings," a tune that states with ersatz bravery how acceptable it is to experience emotions. On his syndicated talk show, Phil Donahue repeatedly thanks guests in distress for "sharing their feelings" and "sharing their pain" with the unseen audience at home.
It's just Ironic -- not necessarily outrageous -- that an essentially dehumanizing instrument like television, with its impersonal one-way communication from Them to Us, should be so heavily populated with people telling us how to feel and to be proud of how we feel.
In the '70s, the Prob Drama told viewers how they should deal with intimate problems like impotence, homosexuality, mental retardation, autistic children, deaths in the family, infidelity, child abuse and spouse battering. PBS offered "Footsteps, a series on how to be a parent -- "parenting" was the newly coined verb -- while Mister Rogers continued to tell children how to be children.
Evangelical television experienced a tremendous boom; 24-hour-a-day, all-religious channels emerged, as did global evangelical networks linked by satellite. On these programs, prayers are applauded, confessions are cheered, and declarations of repentence get ovations. One faith healer actually tells viewers to place their hands on the television screen in order to receive their own little mircles over the air.
In a sense, all television is evangelical, because characters and personalities serve as role models whether they want to or not. In addition, TV is crowded with public service announcements that give counsel to alcoholics, druggies, depressives and virtually anybody with any kind of problem. By the end of the decade, the "Have You Hugged Your Kid Today?" bumper sticker had been replaced with the more insistent, "Kiss Your Baby."
Television not only filled the roles of counselor, shrink, confessor and companion but also, according to one of the most arguable but fitfully persuasive TV books of the decade, that of doctor and pharmacist. Marie Winn called her book, and television, "The Plug-In Drug," and said that people use television for escape in a virtually mind-altering way.
Winn said people go into trances when watching television and in effect equaled that habit-forming drug called television with the decade's most frequently prescribed pill, Valium. With either one you could mellow out and float.
The most dominant theme in commercials during the '70s had to do with the way we should want to feel: "It's nice to feel so good about a meal," "Feelin' good about yourself," "You feel good about serving your family" such-and-such cereal, and so on. Why just shave, one ad asked, when you can "get stroked" in the morning?
Television did a lot of stroking in the '70s, and it seemed like every half hour the phone company was urging us to "reach out, reach out and touch someone" -- not physicaly, as in the big TV hug-in, but electronically, through the impersonal medium of the telephone.
All this carries the warning label that television's role in our lives is growing and growing more intimate with each passing year. In a public TV play called "Home," by Megan Terry, a future society was shown as organized into human bee-hives, with TV the only link from one hive to another and to what remained of the outside world.
As we enter a decade in which fuel shortages may keep more Americans trapped at home than ever before, Terry's fantasy seems less like science fiction than a soberly realistic prognosis. Have your hugged your television set today?