The Most Popular Shows You’ve Never Seen

I was a young kid when “Gunsmoke” was running, but it really was a cultural phenomenon. This piece reminds me how little TV I watch outside of carefully selected streaming material. This part struck me as true, and kind of sad:

TV is a metaphor for what ails, or at least divides, society. With fewer shared experiences—even trivial ones—we find ourselves in smaller social and political groups.

Back in the 1960s, viewers were hostage to three broadcast networks and a few local stations. Now we have “almost unlimited choice—a totally different medium,” Mr. Minow, 95, tells me by email from Chicago. He declined to answer when I asked if he still considers TV a “wasteland,” but he made a related point.

“Fractionalization of the audience provides more choice,” he said, “but we pay a big price. Our country now is much more divided because we do not share the same news or believe the same facts. I used to think providing more choice was in the public interest but I am not sure today.”

The Most Popular Shows You’ve Never Seen

Newton Minow famously called television a “vast wasteland”: “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials. . . . And most of all, boredom.”

That was 60 years ago. Today the options are far more vast, and many of them are of high quality. But we’ve lost something: With so many viewing options, TV is no longer America’s great common denominator.

In 1961, when Mr. Minow became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the three most-watched television programs were westerns: “Wagon Train,” “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke.” Each was seen weekly by roughly 1 in 3 Americans. Wasteland or not, it was part of a sweeping shared experience.

When I looked at Nielsen’s top 10 list of most-viewed series for 2020, I was surprised to discover that I had watched only three—and two of them were NFL football. My editor at the Journal had seen only the same three. (The third was the NBC drama “This Is Us.”) Neither of us has watched the two most popular scheduled nonsports series, the CBS crime dramas “NCIS,” with a 5.0 rating, and “FBI,” with 4.2. The numbers represent the percentage of homes with television that tuned in. In 1961 the rating for “Gunsmoke” was 37.3.

The issue isn’t whether cop shows are aesthetically better than cowboy shows. And it’s not as if Americans are watching less TV; in fact, adults view 4 hours and 8 minutes of television every day, according to Nielsen. When you add in other forms of “video time,” the total jumps to nearly 6 hours. (The pandemic drove up the number by about 35 minutes a day.)

Some streaming services draw large audiences, the biggest for an original series belonging to Netflix’s drama “Ozark.” But Netflix reaches only a small majority of U.S. homes, so even its top series falls short of “Wagon Train” penetration numbers. And with streaming, the community experience—same show, same night, chatted up at the water cooler the next day—is gone.

TV is a metaphor for what ails, or at least divides, society. With fewer shared experiences—even trivial ones—we find ourselves in smaller social and political groups.

Back in the 1960s, viewers were hostage to three broadcast networks and a few local stations. Now we have “almost unlimited choice—a totally different medium,” Mr. Minow, 95, tells me by email from Chicago. He declined to answer when I asked if he still considers TV a “wasteland,” but he made a related point.

“Fractionalization of the audience provides more choice,” he said, “but we pay a big price. Our country now is much more divided because we do not share the same news or believe the same facts. I used to think providing more choice was in the public interest but I am not sure today.”

Television used to bring us together. Nowadays, we read lists of the “most popular” programs, which most of us have never seen.

Mr. Funt is a writer and host of “Candid Camera.”

NCIS was mentioned in there somewhere. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a single episode of NCIS. When I was in school at the U, Friends was big. I usually worked the night that it was on, but I did manage to see a few episodes. I never did understand why it was so popular.

I’ve never watched a single episode of friends, or NCIS. I think I’m odd that way.

That one’s too easy.

I haven’t seen NCIS, consider yourself blessed for not having seen Friends. NBC had Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, all brilliant shows. Friends was not. Frasier was really, really good.

My observation is that most older kids don’t really ‘watch TV’ anymore. Most of their media consumption is through YouTube etc. In fact, I can’t think of the last time my 17yo has sat down in front of our TV to watch a show. My younger kids will watch, rarely, home improvement shows.

They will sit down to watch movies though.

That fits with my observations too. Turns out that TV is so not compelling now that watching someone else play minecraft is actually better entertainment.

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:face_with_monocle:

Yeah, what is up with that? My 10yo is constantly watching these shows - and she barely plays Minecraft.

Over ten years or so I never watched or was remotely interested in the much heralded Modern Family TV show. Recently, it seems as I’m changing channels while TV surfing I’d stop briefly on it and find myself laughing out loud. I have subsequently started watching some of them from season one and find them to be among the funniest shows I’ve ever watched.

This could be a huge list. I have never watched “Big Bang Theory”, “Modern Family” “This is Us”, “ Game of Thrones”, “Lost”, “Real House wives…”, “Hard Knocks”, and more. I watched about half an hour of the series premiere of “The Walking Dead” and then baled. I have watched less than a handful of “Friends” episodes.

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