March 04, 2024

Sharing Popular Culture: From Syndication to Streaming

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

Although I grew up in the era before streaming video was possible, let alone the dominant way that most consumers and I now watch content. (We used to call it “watching television” or “watching TV,” but that’s not always the device of choice to watch video now.) Canceling our cable was freeing a few years ago, and we realized that between YouTube and PBS Passport we were all set (we’ve had Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ over the years too). This appeals to my minimalist sensibility.

I was a child when cable television became widely available in the 1980s, and I had to convince my parents to subscribe after most of my friends’ families already had. My siblings and I had to pay for the installation and do extra chores as part of the agreement to subscribe. I think they wanted to be sure we wouldn’t spent too much time sitting in front of the TV.

There was limited temptation—back then we got a whopping 39 channels—but I could watch music videos on MTV for hours (this was when MTV actually stood for “Music Television,” way before so-called reality/unscripted programming dominated the channel). But otherwise, most of the programs we watched were the networks’ prime-time shows, and decades-old shows that ran in syndication, years after their original run on prime-time television networks had ended.

It's hard to overstate how many more entertainment choices we have today compared to those days. Video rental also began in the 1980s, and as movies began to be released on video (and in the late 1990s, DVDs) more options trickled to consumers. Perhaps one of the benefits to having fewer choices was that many more of us had shared pop culture experiences, even across generations (jokes using pop culture references landed better too).

Some of my favorite shows like Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967), The Addams Family (1964-1966), The Munsters (1964-1966), The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), and Green Acres (1965-1971) aired mostly before I was born, but reruns of those shows were often the only choices of entertainment on TV after school.

What stands out about these shows is that they all feature “fish out of water” comedies, where the characters don’t quite fit in to their environment and have to learn to adapt. Because it is the main characters who don't fit in, the audience is likely to feel empathy—and amusement—about their occasional failures to conform. These were shows that people across generations were also familiar with, so it is possible there was a shared degree of sympathy for the struggles of people trying to fit in who were hopelessly out of place.

The Clampett family of The Beverly Hillbillies were rich people living in Beverly Hills, but dressed like they were poor farmers. By contrast, the Douglases are a couple who are wealthy New Yorkers who move to a rural area in Green Acres. The Addams Family and The Munsters were friendly oddballs living in their own macabre worlds. The Munsters’ niece, Marilyn, was an attractive young blonde woman often described as having a “handicap” due to her appearance, which the audience reads as conventionally beautiful in contrast to her Frankenstein-like relatives.

(Al Lewis, who played Grandpa Munster, would later go on to open an Italian restaurant in New York in the 1980s, and as a college student I ate there one night with friends. We were all thrilled when he came over to our table to greet us.)

In my pre-sociologist years, I might not have identified these shows as exploring the experience of culture shock, finding humor in the struggles people might have trying to fit into a new environment. Perhaps this theme resonated with many viewers due to the large proportion of families (and Hollywood studio executives) whose ancestors had immigrated from Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 eliminated nationality-based quotas and enabled more immigrants from non-European countries, perhaps making even thinly-veiled immigrant stories less appealing to white audiences and studio executives.

Sociologists Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz discuss the function of shared media events, which we might extend to shared pop culture experiences as well. One silver lining of having fewer entertainment choices might be that we could connect based on these shared media texts, perhaps even feeling sympathetic towards perennial outsiders who didn’t fit in.


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