Looking Back At The Eras Of Network Television

Categories: TV Ratings Reference

Written By

June 14th, 2008

This week, instead of looking back at a single year's top shows, I thought it would be interesting to look at the waxing and waning of the different networks and their competition over the past 48 years and try to characterize the different eras of US network television.


In the past 30 years it's been extremely difficult for a network to stay on top for very long.  Likewise, stays at the bottom are usually brief too. The cyclical nature of the TV business is relentless. Networks at the top get complacent, fail to innovate and are overtaken. Networks at the bottom have little to lose, get experimental and eventually hit on something.

While we don't have average ratings or viewership for all these past years, it's clear that the spread between the best and the worst performing networks has narrowed substantially compared to the past as well.

Now, because I like to categorize everything, allow me to put names on eras of television since 1960.

The Tiffany Era (1960*-75): William Paley's CBS is completely dominant, ABC and NBC are also rans.

The Happy Days Era (1976-79): ABC, the youngest of the networks, goes heavily into sitcoms like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Three's Company and moves from worst to first in a matter of 3 years. 1975-76 must have been an absolute earthquake in the TV business.

The Dallas Era (1980-85): The Ewings of Dallas, the faux-Ewings of Falcon Crest, and CBS's own new sitcoms (The Jefferson's, Dukes of Hazzard, Alice, M*A*S*H, One Day At A Time, Archie Bunker's Place, Trapper John, MD) put CBS back on top.

Must See TV Round One (1986-91): Engineered by Brandon Tartikoff, NBC rises from nowhere to prominence anchored by shows like The Cosby Show, Family Ties and Cheers.

The Parity Era (1991-2004): There were lots of ups and downs, but no network claimed a dominant share of top 20 shows. Fox shows began to appear in the top 20. ABC and CBS sitcoms were hot in the early part of the era and Must See TV Round Two (Seinfeld/Friends) brought NBC back in the later part.

The CBS Crime/Survivor Era (2004-6): On the strength of Survivor and countless crime procedurals, CBS moves to the viewership forefront. At the same time, NBC is in free fall.

New Parity/ The Rise of Fox (2006-8): Again, no network has a dominant share of the top 20 shows, and Fox, aided by American Idol, now competes (and sometimes wins) on the same playing field as the original 3. So far, NBC has bucked the trend towards parity, continuing to weaken.

Charting the number of top 20 shows for adults 18-49 (or similar data) would likely show a somewhat different picture, we don't have that data going back to 1960, but do have it back about 10 years. I'll do a future post using adults 18-49 data and we'll look at the differences.

The chart shows the number of shows in the top 20, ranked by household rating, each network had for the season ending in the spring of the year shown. In two years (1998, 2001) there was a HH ratings tie for either 19th or 20th position, so 21 shows were counted. *Likely this pattern held prior to 1960 as well, but 1959-60 is the earliest data we have.

Nielsen TV Ratings Data: ©2008 Nielsen Media Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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