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10 Reasons TV Was Better in the 1970s

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With shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Sherlock, and The Walking Dead becoming such cultural phenomena, you’d think we’re living in the Golden Age of television.  While I agree that there are some truly incredible shows out there, I’d like to make a case that TV was better in the 70s….

 

1.  Quality is Scant – Most TV Is Unwatchable

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As incredible as Breaking Bad is, it was only around for a few short seasons.  Shows like Sherlock and Game of Thrones are more akin to miniseries; the number of episodes are painfully few.   Also, these quality shows are great to list as examples of how wonderful television is today; yet, they are needles in a rather shitty haystack.  You can marathon watch them on Netflix, but what’s actually offered for most of the year is scant indeed.

While I’ve been accused of looking back at the 70s with rose colored glasses, I won’t deny there was plenty of crap programming back then as well.  Yet, for every Hello Larry, there was a multitude of great offerings.  Plus, they weren’t limited to pitifully short seasons – there was plenty of M*A*S*H* and Bob Newhart to enjoy all year, with reruns in the summer.

 

2. Sitcoms Were Like Stage Plays

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Go watch an episode of Good Times and tell me this isn’t like watching a live performance at your local theatre.  Sure, there was often canned laughter and piles of unfunny silliness on many of these shows – so, I won’t make a case that they’re Tennessee Williams or Molière.  However, these shows were generally in front of live audiences, and so the actors really had to know how to act and deliver a line.

So, while I can appreciate a Parks and Recreation;  a show like The Carol Burnett Show, which is performed live, which delivers something on another level that you just don’t get anymore.

 

 

3. Gone Are the Variety Shows and Specials

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I’ll be the first to admit that these shows were intensely cheesy, and got waaaay out of hand by the late Seventies.  But there was something so enjoyable about seeing celebs putting on the schmaltz.  Whether it was The Brady Bunch doing The Hustle or John Travolta taking things down a notch with a soft ballad, audiences in the 70s were lapping it up.

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It wasn’t all cheese either.  Watch an episode of Tony Orlando & Dawn, and you’ll see a master at work.  Orlando works a crowd with a confidence and finesse you just don’t see any more.   You’ll also see a wide range of musical artists from America to Zappa breaking it down live – which was made all the more rewarding in the days before MTV and the Internet; when it was a rare treat to see your favorite acts perform.

 

 

4. No Reality Shows in the 70s

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Has there ever been a bigger blight upon American television than the dreaded reality show?  I get it: they’re cheap and the masses gobble them up like candy.  But, like candy, they are utterly devoid of anything of substance.  Across the vast landscape of television, from channel 02 to 942, it is glutted with hollow and empty content.  A plague 70s television was mercifully spared.

 

 

5. Jiggle TV

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Critics hated it, but the truth is, the prime suspects (Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company, etc.) weren’t that bad – compared to today’s reality TV, they were Shakespeare.  In the 80s, things could get dark and were constantly preachy, but 70s television had a wonderful buffet of eye candy unencumbered by life-lessons and messages.  You could accuse Three’s Company of being light on meaningful issues, but you could never accuse it of being light on entertainment value.  And while it was cotton candy content like reality TV, it still was well thought-out, well acted, and worth a re-watch.  For more, on Jiggle TV read an entire article and become an expert.

 

6. Nonexistent in the 70s: 24 Hour News Channels

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Remember when I asked if there has ever been a bigger blight upon American television than the dreaded reality show?  You should have answered, “Yes.  24 hour news channels”.  With their endless variety of talking heads and endless lack of actual journalism, these networks have become complete embarrassments.  In the 70s, we had the nightly news – an hour of local then national headlines…. AND THAT WAS FREAKING IT!  It was over.  We didn’t have hour upon hour, day upon day, of unabated speculation and misinformation, and we were better for it.   Right-wingers are fond of declaring Walter Cronkite at pinko commie, but I challenge you to go back and watch a newscast from the 70s – you will be amazed at how matter-of-fact it was, completely devoid of commentary and flashiness.

 

 

7. 1970s Game Show Dynamite

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If you disagree with every point on this list, you’ll have to at least agree that game shows ruled in the 70s.  There were the evening game shows which included the drunken antics of The Match Game PM, the cocaine fueled mayhem of The Gong Show, and the naughty “whoopee” talk of The Newlywed Game.  Daytime had such classics as The Price is Right, Let’s Make a Deal, and Password Plus.  It was truly an embarrassment of riches.  Today’s game shows may be flashier and more polished, but pale in comparison.

 

 

8. Late Night Movies in the 70s

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Have a look at what was playing at midnight on a given evening in the 70s, and you will see an amazing array of titles you’ve never heard of.  You only had a few channels to choose from, but they still managed to deliver the goods from long forgotten horror flicks to hippie biker films that still haven’t made it to Netflix.   Today, you certainly have an ample selection from your premium channels, but back in the day, your paltry 3-4 channels delivered up a surprising smorgasbord of obscurities and forgotten classics.  You can probably blame infomercials for the extinction of the late night movie buffet.

 

9. Saturday Morning Cartoons

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I’m going to repeat what I said from an earlier article (7 Things Boys Loved in the Seventies): In the 70s, there were no 24 hour kid networks spewing forth child-centric programming all day, every day.  Back then, you only had 3-4 channels, and they were chock full of adult shows like All in the Family and Columbo.  In the latter half of the decade you had shows like Mork & Mindy and The Incredible Hulk which the whole family could get behind.  However, those weren’t kid only.

Kid only means Superfriends, The Krofft Super Show, The Funky Phantom, Jabber Jaw, Speed Buggy, Laugh-O-lympics,… you get the picture.  These are shows mom, dad and your older siblings shunned.  This was YOUR time.  Saturday morning was your one special moment in the week; it had to be seized and treasured like fine wine.  For next week it was back to Sonny & Cher and (gulp) Maude.

So, you could argue that kids actually have it better now, not being limited to that one glorious morning each week.  However, I can’t help but wonder if it has become less special.  Kids have gained quantity and daily gratification, but lost the anticipation and the joy of the moment.

 

10. A Shared Pop Culture

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This last point is perhaps the hardest to explain.  It has to do with the very limited offerings we had in the 1970s (as mentioned, we only had 3-4 channels); therefore, everyone was watching the same basic shows…. thus, everyone from this generation has the same basic memories and experiences to share and talk about the next day – and to reminisce about in the years to come.  Baby Boomers share the same TV memories as a generation –the same can be said (perhaps more so) for Generation X.  Not so today.

In contrast, there is so much variety in mass media, from Netflix to hundreds of channels to YouTube to DVDs to…. You get the picture.  What you watched last night is very likely NOT what your neighbor or coworker watched.  Seinfeld may have been the last vestige of a communal pop culture experience.

While you could argue that this wide variety makes our younger generations more diverse in perspectives, there’s something positive to having shared pop culture references among members of a generation.  When an episode of The Brady Bunch is brought up among Gen Xers, everyone remembers it, and there’s a bit of joy in that.

  • Nicholas Hughes

    In the UK, the quality of TV we produced and watched has plummeted. The 70s was UK TV’s finest hour and here’s why:
    1. With 3 channels, it was easier to put resources into fewer shows.
    2. Ratings weren’t an obsession, so there were plenty of documentaries and non-ratings chasing shows being made.
    3. Action! 70s British TV was awash with fights, car chases and gunfights…both home produced and imported from the US.
    4. Charismatic actors and presenters. That generation just produced great actors who you liked to watch: Ian Ogilvy, Patrick Mower, Judy Geeson, Nicky Henson, David McCallum and a whole host of beautiful actresses. These days, British TV seems to revolve around the same 12 actors who are cast in everything.
    5. Daring to do better. When British TV producers in the 70s wanted to make something, they didn’t stress over the lowest demographic; they had ideas and made shows without thinking too hard about who would be watching them. If the show’s good, it’ll find an audience.

    • Interesting! My exposure to UK TV in the 70s amounted to Dr. Who, Monty Python, Benny Hill and creepy Gerry Anderson “puppets”. I’ve since been exposed to much more, and, although I can’t say much regarding current British TV, I can testify to the awesomeness of 70s UK programming.

      • Nicholas Hughes

        I like to think that when British and US TV were at their best was when both were looking over their shoulders to see what the other one was doing. Saturday Night Live came about in part because of what Monty Python was doing. Hill Street Blues came about because the producers wanted something like the British show Z Cars. The number of British action cop shows in the 70s came about because of American action cop shows. Space 1999 came about in response to Star Trek.

  • Princessofmirth

    I can honestly say,at age 41, I’ve completely given up on US network television. The shows are so trashy &unwatchable, I gave up 10 years ago. Cable is no better, a cesspool of inane reality shows. I seem to gravitate to the retro t.v. stations. I say death to reality shows,the sooner the better! Bring back the good old days when tv was more groundbreaking. , not so politically correct, and make them funny again!
    The shows today are so humorless. & safe. I still laugh at Sanford & son!!
    and the match game is still hilarious!

    • Brian O’Connell

      I’ve found that cancelling cable and getting TV over the air saves a bit of cash, but most importantly, if you get your hands on a Roku, there’s hundreds of free channels, many of which have classic TV shows and movies absolutely free of charge. If you get DSL service, it’ll be cheaper than cable too.

  • Sean

    Spot on, especially the Saturday morning cartoons. Many kids these days watch TV at all hours of the day, but–and cue the old man vibe–back in our day we didn’t want to watch what our parents were watching (possible except was Carson), so we actually went outside, played games with friends, read books, or tied up the only phone line in the house talking with friends. You know, socializing. But come Saturday morning…

    One other item that should be added to your list, a lack of a recording device. No VHS, no DVR, if you missed it there wasn’t Netflix, iTunes, or torrents, you had to wait until Summer and pray your parents bought the latest TV Guide so you knew when to expect it on TV.

  • Beppo1963

    Don’t forget tons of guest stars! I’ve been watching a lot of 70’s TV lately and I love watching who is a guest star on The Rockford Files. When was the last time Heather Menzies was on Breaking Bad? Never, that’s when!

  • Mapster68

    “Has there ever been a bigger blight upon American television than the dreaded reality show? ‘ The answer is, definitively, no, hell no. And I LOVED the variety shows – nothing said 70s better. I ask, dear readers, when was the last time you saw a “variety show?” Case, effing, closed, oh wait, the Duggards are on, gotta go man!!!

    • Heather Ferreira

      Bear in mind reality television came from Holland and Britain. It is NOT an American phenomenon. America was brainwashed and browbeaten into accepting it when it exists as everything our society used to loathe and refuse to stand for. Never believe we like it. Asked privately, most Americans DESPISE reality TV. But, “There’s nothing else on to watch.” That was intentional.

      As in feature films, independent television is about to finally pierce the prison walls and give you good scripted shows to watch again.

  • Kenny Starkiss

    I have been watching CHIPS on Retro-TV lately. I noticed something in an episode the other day. They blurred out one of the women’s tops in a few scenes. I find that interesting. As in – it was not blurred over 30 years ago, but now it is.

  • Paul Duca

    To be accurate, the 1970’s brought us the first examples of reality TV, from AN AMERICAN FAMILY to REAL PEOPLE.
    (some feel that YOU ASKED FOR IT and THIS IS YOUR LIFE

  • Paul Duca

    To be fair, the 1970’s brought the first examples of what we now call “reality TV”, from AN AMERICAN FAMILY to REAL PEOPLE
    (some consider YOU ASKED FOR IT and THIS IS YOUR LIFE from the 1950’s their precursor)

  • Heather Ferreira

    Don’t give up, folks: stay tuned. I’m a television and film producer in Los Angeles. I’m planning to start a new station that keeps it real. News in 30 minute broadcasts with NO OPINIONS AND NO TALKING HEADS, strictly at 6:00 AM, 12:00 PM, 6:00 PM and 11:00 PM. Station sign-off midnight on the dot. Shows similar to Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Columbo (that series currently is in production), and even yes, the variety show. I agree about variety on all points and am bringing it back. It took a long time, but don’t give up on TV. Los Angeles independent television is about to take small, low budget, high quality steps and patiently bring it back to ya.

    I expect to run the most successful American television network of the 21st century by 2019. Bank on it.

    • davycoolguy

      Good luck my friend. I am guessing your production will most likely be on PAYTV, because corporate run channels with ads are biased. However people like myself have no problem paying for it.

  • Planetary

    “While you could argue that this wide variety makes our younger generations more diverse in perspectives” I disagree. If we wanted to watch t.v., we had to watch whatever was on. Especially in a one t.v. house. With those limitations we actually watched more diverse stuff. Today’s kids are able to customize their viewing experience, thus filtering out anything they don’t want to watch. I saw a greater variety of stuff across a wide variety of genre’s with 5 channels than todays kids with who knows how many channels, YouTube, Netflix, etc.

  • Hkinsey3

    Imho TV shows in the 70’s and early 80’s stunk. From Chips to McCloud to Dragnet to the 6 Million Dollar Man and everywhere in between. Take the A-Team…how in the world can anyone with so much fire power and ammunition shoot up the small screen for a whole show and never hit anyone? The acting in most of the programs was all wooden, the quality of the finished product was poor (as in videotape poor), the period clothing screamed 70’s, the situations were so candy-coated it was hard to believe that life was ever so mundane. The situation comedies all used the same tired & worn out corny lines that were funny when Lucy used them but not so much then. However, all was not a vast wasteland, as there were a few westerns still riding the range and those are still watchable today (saved by the horse). TV today is much better and more interesting and more educational. It is more fun to watch and even if some of the series are more like mini-series….there are a lot of them. There are too many police shows, too much gratuitous violence and too many politically correct situations and characters today but hey, nothing is perfect. So if I see a 70’s show that is set in the 70’s….. I just change channels.

    • davycoolguy

      Exactly, if you watch “The West Wing ” for example or ” Law and Order” ; These shows not only entertain with fictional story lines, though some on LAD that are based on reality, they have a staff that knows exactly how the system of whatever works. These 2 shows are the tip of the iceberg. ” The Wire ” is another example of the multitudes of programs like this. With nature and history channel and Netflix and HBO etc… We get unlimited amounts of awesome programming .

  • Jesse Skeen

    Another reason- cable was scarce, and the cable channels that did exist then were COMMERCIAL-FREE (because your subscription fees were what kept them in business) and showed things that regular TV couldn’t or wouldn’t show- mainly uncensored movies and things that were too “smart” for commercial TV. It’s now degraded into just more of the same crap- I couldn’t believe the first time in the 80s when I saw a commercial on a cable channel.

  • davycoolguy

    TV is much better today. Sure , I love the nostalgia and comparison of eras of watching all the different eras including my teen years era in the 70’s and even before; But the fact is that we have much more tv, more intelligent dramas that are realistic as well as many nature , history and other documentaries. Crappy tv has always been around, but much more better tv as well. Throw in the ondemand, ad free aspect and much better tv viewing experience with HD , big screen and 3d and the comparison is laughable.

  • Equi Tube

    I came across this old article while searching the hundreds of channels of crap that I pay far too much for and finally settling on a rerun of Starskey and Hutch on a ‘retro’ tv station. Hmm,I’m now paying good money to rewatch shows Ionce got for free. On an antenna yet.