Lauren Zalaznick: The conscience of television
But my idea today is not to debate whether there's such a thing as good TV or bad TV; my idea today is to tell you that I believe television has a conscience. So why I believe that television has a conscience is that I actually believe that television directly reflects the moral, political, social and emotional need states of our nation -- that television is how we actually disseminate our entire value system. So all these things are uniquely human, and they all add up to our idea of conscience.
Now today, we're not talking about good and bad TV. We're talking about popular TV. We're talking about top-10 Nielsen-rated shows over the course of 50 years. How do these Nielsen ratings reflect not just what you've heard about, which is the idea of our social, collective unconscious, but how do these top-10 Nielsen-rated shows over 50 years reflect the idea of our social conscience? How does television evolve over time, and what does this say about our society?
Now speaking of evolution, from basic biology, you probably remember that the animal kingdom, including humans, have four basic primal instincts. You have hunger; you have sex; you have power; and you have the urge for acquisitiveness. As humans, what's important to remember is that we've developed, we've evolved over time to temper, or tame, these basic animal instincts. We have the capacity to laugh and cry. We feel awe, we feel pity. That is separate and apart from the animal kingdom. The other thing about human beings is that we love to be entertained. We love to watch TV. This is something that clearly separates us from the animal kingdom. Animals might love to play, but they don't love to watch.
So I had an ambition to discover what could be understood from this uniquely human relationship between television programs and the human conscious. Why has television entertainment evolved the way it has? I kind of think of it as this cartoon devil or angel sitting on our shoulders. Is television literally functioning as our conscience, tempting us and rewarding us at the same time?
So to begin to answer these questions, we did a research study. We went back 50 years to the 1959/1960 television season. We surveyed the top-20 Nielsen shows every year for 50 years -- a thousand shows. We talked to over 3,000 individuals -- almost 3,600 -- aged 18 to 70, and we asked them how they felt emotionally. How did you feel watching every single one of these shows? Did you feel a sense of moral ambiguity? Did you feel outrage? Did you laugh? What did this mean for you? So to our global TED audiences, I want to say that this was a U.S. sample. But as you can see, these emotional need states are truly universal. And on a factual basis, over 80 percent of the U.S.'s most popular shows are exported around the world. So I really hope our global audiences can relate.
Two acknowledgments before our first data slide: For inspiring me to even think about the idea of conscience and the tricks that conscience can play on us on a daily basis, I thank legendary rabbi, Jack Stern. And for the way in which I'm going to present the data, I want to thank TED community superstar Hans Rosling, who you may have just seen.
Okay, here we go. So here you see, from 1960 to 2010, the 50 years of our study. Two things we're going to start with -- the inspiration state and the moral ambiguity state, which, for this purpose, we defined inspiration as television shows that uplift me, that make me feel much more positive about the world. Moral ambiguity are televisions shows in which I don't understand the difference between right and wrong. As we start, you see in 1960 inspiration is holding steady. That's what we're watching TV for. Moral ambiguity starts to climb. Right at the end of the 60s, moral ambiguity is going up, inspiration is kind of on the wane. Why? The Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK is shot, the Civil Rights movement, race riots, the Vietnam War, MLK is shot, Bobby Kennedy is shot, Watergate. Look what happens. In 1970, inspiration plummets. Moral ambiguity takes off. They cross, but Ronald Reagan, a telegenic president, is in office. It's trying to recover. But look, it can't: AIDS, Iran-Contra, the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl. Moral ambiguity becomes the dominant meme in television from 1990 for the next 20 years.
Take a look at this. This chart is going to document a very similar trend. But in this case, we have comfort -- the bubble in red -- social commentary and irreverence in blue and green. Now this time on TV you have "Bonanza," don't forget, you have "Gunsmoke," you have "Andy Griffith," you have domestic shows all about comfort. This is rising. Comfort stays whole. Irreverence starts to rise. Social commentary is all of a sudden spiking up. You get to 1969, and look what happens. You have comfort, irreverence, and social commentary, not only battling it out in our society, but you literally have two establishment shows -- "Gunsmoke" and "Gomer Pyle" -- in 1969 are the number-two- and number-three-rated television shows. What's number one? The socially irreverent hippie show, "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." They're all living together, right. Viewers had responded dramatically.
Look at this green spike in 1966 to a bellwether show. When you guys hear this industry term, a breakout hit, what does that mean? It means in the 1966 television season, The "Smothers Brothers" came out of nowhere. This was the first show that allowed viewers to say, "My God, I can comment on how I feel about the Vietnam War, about the presidency, through television?" That's what we mean by a breakout show.
So then, just like the last chart, look what happens. In 1970, the dam bursts. The dam bursts. Comfort is no longer why we watch television. Social commentary and irreverence rise throughout the 70s. Now look at this. The 70s means who? Norman Lear. You have "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son," and the dominant show -- in the top-10 for the entire 70s -- "M*A*S*H." In the entire 50 years of television that we studied, seven of 10 shows ranked most highly for irreverence appeared on air during the Vietnam War, five of the top-10 during the Nixon administration. Only one generation, 20 years in, and we discovered, Wow! TV can do that? It can make me feel this? It can change us? So to this very, very savvy crowd, I also want to note the digital folks did not invent disruptive. Archie Bunker was shoved out of his easy chair along with the rest of us 40 years ago.
This is a quick chart. Here's another attribute: fantasy and imagination, which are shows defined as, "takes me out of my everyday realm" and "makes me feel better." That's mapped against the red dot, unemployment, which is a simple Bureau of Labor Department statistic. You'll see that every time fantasy and imagination shows rise, it maps to a spike in unemployment. Do we want to see shows about people saving money and being unemployed? No. In the 70s you have the bellwether show "The Bionic Woman" that rocketed into the top-10 in 1973, followed by the "Six Million-Dollar Man" and "Charlie's Angels." Another spike in the 1980s -- another spike in shows about control and power. What were those shows? Glamorous and rich. "Dallas," "Fantasy Island." Incredible mapping of our national psyche with some hard and fast facts: unemployment.
So here you are, in my favorite chart, because this is our last 20 years. Whether or not you're in my business, you have surely heard or read of the decline of the thing called the three-camera sitcom and the rise of reality TV. Well, as we say in the business, X marks the spot. The 90s -- the big bubbles of humor -- we're watching "Friends," "Frasier," "Cheers" and "Seinfeld." Everything's good, low unemployment. But look: X marks the spot. In 2001, the September 2001 television season, humor succumbs to judgment once and for all. Why not? We had a 2000 presidential election decided by the Supreme Court. We had the bursting of the tech bubble. We had 9/11. Anthrax becomes part of the social lexicon. Look what happens when we keep going. At the turn of the century, the Internet takes off, reality television has taken hold. What do people want in their TV then? I would have thought revenge or nostalgia. Give me some comfort; my world is falling apart. No, they want judgment. I can vote you off the island. I can keep Sarah Palin's daughter dancing. I can choose the next American Idol. You're fired. That's all great, right?
So as dramatically different as these television shows, pure entertainment, have been over the last 50 years -- what did I start with? -- one basic instinct remains. We're animals, we need our moms. There has not been a decade of television without a definitive, dominant TV mom. The 1950s: June Cleever in the original comfort show, "Leave it to Beaver." Lucille Ball kept us laughing through the rise of social consciousness in the 60s. Maude Findlay, the epitome of the irreverent 1970s, who tackled abortion, divorce, even menopause on TV. The 1980s, our first cougar was given to us in the form of Alexis Carrington. Murphy Brown took on a vice president when she took on the idea of single parenthood. This era's mom, Bree Van de Kamp. Now I don't know if this is the devil or the angel sitting on our conscience, sitting on television's shoulders, but I do know that I absolutely love this image.
So to you all, the women of TEDWomen, the men of TEDWomen, the global audiences of TEDWomen, thank you for letting me present my idea about the conscience of television. But let me also thank the incredible creators who get up everyday to put their ideas on our television screens throughout all these ages of television. They give it life on television, for sure, but it's you as viewers, through your collective social consciences, that give it life, longevity, power or not.
So thanks very much.
TV executive Lauren Zalaznick thinks deeply about pop television. Sharing results of a bold study that tracks attitudes against TV ratings over five decades, she makes a case that television reflects who we truly are -- in ways we might not have expected.
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