A Brief History of Classic Television: From Lucy Ricardo to Tony Soprano

Robert Thompson
Robert Thompson
Syracuse University

Robert Thompson is the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University and Trustee Professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.  He has written pieces for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and others, and his commentary has been featured on hundreds of radio and TV programs, including CBS’s 60 Minutes, PBS’s American Experience, and ESPN’s 30 for 30. Professor Thompson is the author or editor of six books about American television.

Overview

With Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and the rest, it is impossible for anyone to keep up with all the TV—even just the good TV—that is now being released on an almost daily basis.  Once upon a time, however, practically everyone was watching the same shows at the same time.  The characters, catch phrases, theme songs, and stories provided a common culture that we all shared and that both reflected and distorted our image of the national soul.

With some quick analyses of five TV shows — from the 1940s (when TV was still being broadcast live from New York) to the 1990s (when cable was providing a higher quality of programming to a lower quantity of viewers) — we’ll examine the evolution of what was once truly a mass medium in the days before streaming.

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