Television Through the Ages and the Rise of Showrunners

Television is no longer what it once was for a variety of different reasons. Roberta Pearson’s examination of the three distinct television eras in her essay, “Cult Television as Digital Television’s Cutting Edge”, shows how television today allows for greater expression than in previous years. In order to examine this further it’s important to have an understanding of how Pearson makes the distinctions between these eras.


A family watching TV together at home.

TVI is what we think of when we imagine the early days of television; the family all gathered together in the living room. This era spans from the mid-1950s through the early 1980s. This period is marked by few channels and many family-oriented programs like Leave It to Beaver, I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, and The Ed Sullivan Show. These programs cater to a  mass audience and feature likable characters, relatable family dramas and a few laughs. The early 1980s and late 1990s make up TVII, a time where there were more channels available and network branding strategies were necessary in order to find audiences. This era set the stage for TVIII, which would require a greater understanding of brands, niche audiences due to the availability of more channels.

Pearson is careful to point out that these “periodizations cannot contain history’s multiple complexities and contradictions, which can be fully understood only through a detailed analysis of the historical archive” (107). However for our purposes here of getting a reasonable understanding of television history in a small blog post, this argument won’t address these complexities. Rather I would like to use this foundation to now turn to the greater expression in contemporary television and look at a few examples of auteurs who made a solid fan base as a result of the changes through these eras.

Auteurs or “show-runners” as they are called in television have creative and managerial control over the series. In TVI where programs were for a mass audience, there were fewer instances of noticeable branding like we see today. As Pearson explains,

“But in the sixties, despite the fact that American television has always been considered a producer’s medium (in contrast to U.K. television, in which the writer has often the controlling hand), the conventional wisdom has it that TVI producers kept a low public profile; it was the shows that mattered, not the show-runners” (108).

The season four promotional image. Property of HBO.

This isn’t the case with television programs nowadays. The success and popularity of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone showed writers and producers that deviations from the norm sell. Pearson attributes Gene Roddenberry’s success with Star Trek to the way that he “successfully created a producer brand consonant with the period’s fascination with space travel and anxieties over the cultural status of television” (113). Many show-runners are doing the same today with unique shows that draw attention to contemporary concerns and anxieties. A popular example of a program that highlights these anxieties is HBO’s Girls. The show created by Lena Dunham is an exploration of the lives of four young women in their first years out of college living in New York City. The show receives a great deal of attention for its unabashed look at the not-always-pretty experiences of young women in their twenties. The show features a great deal of nudity and other deeply personal themes. However since the show is on HBO, this is a somewhat tricky example because HBO “isn’t television”. So let’s take a look at some other examples.

Dan Harmon’s series Community is a very unusual and endlessly entertaining look at a group of adults who go to community college. The show has a large and loyal fan base that “brought the show back” despite it’s premature cancellation before they could achieve their “six seasons and a movie”.  This achievement is a testament to Dan Harmon’s ability to create a strange but unique world where reality is peppered with the absurd and sometimes people turn into zombies at the school dance. Since the show takes place in a community college it brands itself towards an audience interested in a comedy ridden with intellectual references, like the mention of Al Jolson in the Dungeons and Dragons episode for example, that are so quick you might miss them.

Another extremely popular writer is Joss Whedon who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly to name a few examples. Like popular niche writers before him, Whedon creates work that is unusual, supernatural, and still vastly relevant to contemporary life. His works play with issues of gender and sexuality, featuring many strong female characters and has a trademark wit.

Despite the widespread challenges to mainstream television, I think that the presence of so many show-runners and the prevalence of their work shows that this age of television is very promising. There are certainly many threats including live-streaming, the presence of new media technologies, and the move away from live-viewing programs but I think that the types of programs that are available are diverse and entertaining. This is all possible because of the emergence of branding strategies that came out of the second era of television. With hundreds of channels to choose from there is something for every kind of viewer and thankfully the fans have some input and the power to bring back the shows with complexity. It is a tricky time in television but it has a strong entertainment factor and is still relevant. In other words, there is always something to watch.

Bennett, James, and Niki Strange. Television as Digital Media. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.


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