Tag Archives: Nielsen ratings

The Laughter of Millions: Finding your Material in the “Vast Wasteland”

In the introduction to The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005: 12) Mary M. Dalton and Laura R. Linder conclude that while entertaining, “[sitcoms] are never just entertainment”, but rather a fascinating window into the conventions, structures, and discourses of American culture. Given the genres popularity, longevity, and consistent formula from the early days of television onwards, American sitcoms form a highly interesting source material for historians. Needless to point out, sitcoms feature discourses often consumed by tens of millions of people. The main problem for historians, usually taking on television material qualitatively rather than quantitatively, is the “vast wasteland” this archival treasure amounts to. Thus, to use the immense material television sitcoms constitute the historian must find a way to select the shows that represent the culture, or find himself buried in one-liners, laugh-tracks, and opening themes.

Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)

Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor)

The strengths of sitcoms as historical source material lies in their ability to on the one hand reflect the culture they are a product of and on the other hand shape the culture they are consumed in. That is to say, sitcoms are never produced nor enjoyed in a vacuum.

 

While the effects sitcoms have on audiences attitudes and believes hardly can be empirically proven it remains clear that, as John Fiske puts it in Television Culture (London: Routledge, 2010), “Social change does occur, ideological values do shift, and television is a part of this movement”. So, as historians we must find the shows that best captures the zeitgeist of a specific period in time.

This part is rather clear, what is harder is locating a methodologically sound way to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Depending on your research question material selection can of course sort itself out, if you’re looking for say Asian-American families in the lead you are pretty much left with All-American Girl (ABC 1994) and the upcoming Fresh off the Boat (ABC 2015).

If, however, there are no content requirements on the show beyond them being sitcoms (I will not venture into debates of any authoritarian definition of sitcoms here) you will need clear selection methods to find the canon of sitcoms that most saturated the specific times.

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