How TV Shows Constantly Evolve

a TV test pattern

TV shows have never been more popular; all TV viewers are now in the thick of the era of “Peak TV”. Sometimes, though, we forget its history. TV shows have been around since the 1940s, in a range of quality and quantity. The technology of TV has actually been around since the 1800s. Of course, programming didn’t actively start until the mid-1930s, in the United Kingdom, with the introduction of the BBC. The United States would continue to experiment with TV until 1941 when the first commercial broadcasts began airing in select states. TV shuttered across Europe and Eastern Europe during World War II, picking up steam once the war was over.

A family watching some of the first TV shows
A family watching one of the first TVs. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

However, this isn’t an article about the evolving technology of TV. This article is about TV shows; the evolution of things like character arcs, storytelling styles, and stylistic changes. The so-called “evolution of TV” is actually a paradox, in many ways. TV hasn’t changed that much over the past 80 years. A lot of the things that we think mark the era of “Peak TV” have been around for a long time. “Peak TV” is merely another great time for TV because of the rapid proliferation of available platforms in recent years. Nearly every audience is included and targeted. However, the amount of diversity of stories and characters has certainly been elevated

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning: TV Shows In The 1950s

The early history of television programming in the United States is a difficult one to decipher. The big networks such as CBS, ABC and NBC did not have archival policies initially, so few programs from the 1940s survive. Even into the 60s and 70s, international networks like the BBC did not keep archives of all their programming. The most notable case of lost TV shows with the BBC is the probable loss of episodes of Doctor Who.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy, one of the most iconic TV shows
I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, is a popular show to this day. (I Love Lucy/CBS)

You probably know the sitcom I Love Lucy (1951-1957) or the Western Bonanza (1959-1973) if you’ve watched any old TV shows. You might know that talk shows have been around since the days of radio, with The Tonight Show being the longest-running one on TV, starting in 1954. But you might not know about anthology shows or musical variety shows.

The introduction to Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965). Hitchcock was one of the first major Hollywood figures to come to TV in its early days. (Alfred Hitchcock Presents/NBC)

Anthology shows were different than how we think of that genre now. Where the word “anthology” might make you think of American Horror Story (2011-present), where a different continuous story is told each season, the 1950s anthology shows were different. These live shows were supported by some industry leaders in exchange for ad space and told a different story every episode. Musical variety shows were essentially what they sounded like; different music groups would perform each episode. A lot of groups were of the big band genre, which was especially popular during and after World War II.

The Swinging Sixties: Treading Water

Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, the stars of The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of the 1960s most charming TV shows
The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the most popular sitcoms of its time…and its legacy lives on. (The Dick Van Dyke Show/CBS)

Television continued on pretty much the same track from the beginning of the 1950s to the end of the 1960s. Anthology shows started to move away from airing live into being filmed. One of the most popular was The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), created by Rod Serling, who had come up during the live anthology days. So-called “sophisticated” comedies like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963) and The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) entertained audiences. Rural comedies like The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) and The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971) also blossomed.

The intro to the original Twilight Zone. (The Twilight Zone/CBS)

For most of the decade, detective shows and Westerns remained popular. Soap operas were popular in the 1950s, and the genre’s popularity continued, with another genre, the talk show, booming. Science fiction, with shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (1963-1965) clung to cinematic life. Those two shows, among others (like the original Star Trek (1966-1969), continued a tradition of sci-fi beyond “monster of the week”–intellectual sci-fi. These shows featured sci-fi with a moral at the center of its story, but not so overt that you felt like you were being lectured.

Despite a world rapidly changing around them, TV shows in the 1960s (for the most part) reflected life in an increasingly bygone era. One of peace, of life before shattering events like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the start of the war in Vietnam. And then, as the 70s dawned, everything changed.

Rural Purges & The Changing Culture Representation: The 1970s

The rural purge by major networks in the early 1970s canceled “country” themed shows of the 1960s, such as The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971) and Green Acres (1965-1971). These TV shows were replaced by more socially relevant fare like The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) and All in the Family (1971-1979). While shows set in the country would continue on with Little House on the Prairie (1974-1984) and The Waltons (1972-1981), the innocent days of TV shows were done.

Ted Knight, Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
One of the 1970s most popular comedies was revolutionary because its lead character was a single, working woman. (The Mary Tyler Moore Show/CBS)

More and more, shows were tackling issues like race, reproductive rights, sexual harassment and assault, drug abuse, gender equality, and political corruption. Married characters would share beds now; sex between consenting adults was implied to have occurred. TV got more diverse, with shows like The Jeffersons (1975-1985) having a lasting impact. Character development, while always a part of TV’s unique serial qualities, became more important. There were small, recurring arcs over the course of a TV show’s season. While not major, and usually involving romance, these story arcs would indicate the beginning of something new.

The 70s, though, were largely a transitional period, especially for dramas. The comedies of this decade, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Jeffersons, were and are beloved for comedy that didn’t date itself, but remains relevant to this day. TV dramas of the 70s, however, often tried to push the envelope so hard that they often didn’t stop to think if they should. A lot of the dramas of this decade seem dated and are mostly forgotten and were short-lived to boot. Then, another paradigm shift.

Dawn Of The Reagan Eighties: TV Shows Take Off The Training Wheels

Dramas and comedies of the 1980s focused mainly on the workplace, be it a police station or a hospital or a bar. There were still shows that centered on families, but most shows of this decade took the lessons of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (a workplace comedy) and ran with them. Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), St. Elsewhere (1982-1988), and Cheers (1982-1993) all centered around working adults doing their jobs.

The cast of Hill Street Blues, one of many cop TV shows, but the one that stood out
Hill Street Blues was one of the 1980s pioneering dramas. (Hill Street Blues/NBC)

The consensus seemed to be that adult life was messy. With that messiness came the normalization of discussing societal issues and stories that stretched over multiple episodes. These story arcs weren’t just romantic anymore; they were now related to the consequences of actions characters took in previous episodes. These TV shows were still a long way from the conspiracies and overarching series, as opposed to mere seasons, arcs that we see today. However, these shows were the beginning of something that would transform television from a procedural storytelling medium to a mostly serialized medium.

The Truth Is Out There: The 1990s Transform TV Again

The history of TV programming is one of stagnation before progression, transformation and evolution; and the 1990s were another part of that cycle. Workplace comedies and dramas were still common, but more and more, you got shows that embraced the weird and the boring sides of life. Seinfeld (1989-1998) is about nothing; The X-Files (1993-2002) is about everything, in addition to aliens. Seinfeld and other comedies like Frasier (1993-2004) and Friends (1994-2004) were about the banalities of life. The X-Files, Babylon 5 (1994-1998) and Twin Peaks (1990-1991) featured wider conspiracies told over long, planned out arcs that connected nearly every episode.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny of The X-Files, one of the tv shows that was very weird
Where are they in this photo? Just another mystery of The X-Files. (The X-Files/FOX)

Admittedly, that’s just a sampling of shows. Just like today’s era of “Peak TV,” shows multiplied. People are always remembering programs from the 1990s today. Notably, content restrictions were being lifted, too. You could find nudity, overt sex and language on your TV set now. LGBTQ issues and characters started to appear, although often for just an episode. Visible: Out on Television, one of Apple+’s shows, is a good resource on the history there.

From 2000 To Now: TV Shows Can’t Stop Expanding

Maybe it’s unfair to group the 2000s and the 2010s together, but they act as a package deal. Content restrictions and social “taboos” on TV were stripped away as the 2000s progressed. Two of the most popular shows of the early part of this era couldn’t have been more disparate. These were the days of The West Wing (1999-2006) and The Sopranos (1999-2007). One featuring the most honored man in the country, the President; the other showcasing a powerful mobster. The networks and cable channels were catering to diverse tastes.

Regina King leads a strong cast in Watchmen
Watchmen was the most talked-about TV show last year; it feels like a culmination of everything that came before it. (Watchmen/HBO)

The introduction of streaming services increases the available airtime for TV shows and the number of different stories that could be told. However, those stories have been around for a long time. Watchmen, one of the most popular shows in 2019, hearkens back to the old detective shows, but with a progressive, modern twist. The possibilities are endless now– but only because of the hard work that went into building and molding TV’s unique brand of storytelling into what we know it as today.

Watch TV. Watch All The TV.

After watching the newest episode of your favorite show on HBO or binging the latest Netflix show, consider tuning in to a show from TV’s storied past. It could be one of those mentioned here or one you discover on your own. By watching the past, we can better understand the present…and prepare for the future.

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