Television Shows in the 1970s

The 1970s were a transformative decade for television, marked by a significant evolution in content, themes, and audience engagement. This period saw the rise of groundbreaking shows that not only entertained but also mirrored and significantly impacted societal attitudes, pushing the boundaries of storytelling and representation on the small screen.

The television shows of the 1970s had a profound impact on popular culture, influencing fashion, music, and language. The decade’s TV stars became household names, and their styles and catchphrases quickly permeated everyday life. The legacy of 1970s television extends beyond nostalgia; it set new standards for storytelling, representation, and engagement with social issues, paving the way for future generations of content creators.

If there was one word to describe television during the 1970s, it would be “cheese.”

The Cheesy Charm of 1970s Television

The very definition of the boob tube was evident during this decade as television programmers turned to implausible, high-concept sitcoms and variety shows to entertain audiences.

Shows like The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, The Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, Three’s Company, and others were innocuously silly and shallow but offered audiences wearied by the war in Vietnam, civil unrest, and the Watergate scandal, like their 1960s counterparts, escape from reality.

The King of Cheese was undoubtedly executive producer Aaron Spelling. Responsible for such shows as The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels, Spelling’s series traded on cheesecake sexuality and conventional stories that were easily resolved at the end of each episode. Spelling created a formula that proved popular during the decade and was replicated by other TV shows, such as the ABC sitcom Three’s Company, which perfected the situational comedy and laugh tracks conventions.

Charlie's Angels (TV Series 1976–1981)

PBS, founded in 1969, offered an alternative to cheese by featuring educational and informational programming for a discerning public. Shows like Masterpiece Theater and Great Performances brought the arts to primetime, and educational fare such as Sesame Street and Electric Company revealed that a balance between entertainment and education could be struck for children’s programming.

Stereotypical Portrayals in 1970s Television

Race, gender, and sexuality were still presented in very stereotypical ways and, in the case of race, had even suffered setbacks.

During this decade, the cop and detective shows became even more popular as networks churned out such shows as The Streets of San Francisco, Columbo, Baretta, Barnaby Jones, McCloud, Kojak, Starsky and Hutch, and others. As Americans grew more concerned about crime in urban streets, these shows trafficked in many of the stereotypes of African American men as criminals and pimps.

The Blaxploitation movies early in the decade influenced these portrayals, as actors such as Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear, Starsky and Hutch) found work in film and television playing pimps and muggers. But the 1970s also saw a slew of primetime sitcoms that featured all-black casts, such as That’s My Mama, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, What’s Happening, and others. These programs were popular with both black and white audiences, but critics also complained that they brought back coon images, particularly of black men.

One such show that stood out for criticism was Good Times, a spin-off of the popular CBS sitcom Maude. Though Good Times began in earnest about a black family surviving poverty in the Chicago projects, it eventually gave way to the shuck-and-jive antics of character J.J. Evans (Jimmie Walker), whose signature tagline “Dynamite” became a popular catchphrase with audiences. Eventually, actors John Amos (John Evans) and Esther Rolle (Florida Evans) left the series due to creative differences over its direction. Nonetheless, these programs, good or bad, opened television broadcasting up to different portrayals of African Americans on primetime.

Still, with the exception of Get Christie Love (Teresa Graves) and SWAT, featuring Georg Sanford Brown, there were few portrayals of African Americans on television that matched Bill Cosby’s Alexander Scott in the 1960s spy drama I Spy.

Portrayals of other nonwhite characters were also few and far between. In the 1968 police procedural Hawaii Five-O, Asian actor Kam Fong had a prominent role as Det. Chin Ho Kelly, but even a show that featured Asian martial arts, Kung Fu, starred white actor David Carradine in the titular role.

Latino roles were also few and far between, with the late comedian Freddie Prinze starring in the 1974-1978 sitcom Chico and the Man and actor Gregory Sierra in the 1975 sitcom Barney Miller and Sanford and Son, representing the few that aired during this decade. Like African American actors, Latino actors were relegated to playing criminals in cop dramas. Barney Miller was one of the few shows that featured nonwhite actors such as Ron Glass and Jack Soo among its ensemble cast.

Likewise, sitcoms like WKRP in Cincinnati, Taxi, Welcome Back Kotter, White Shadow, and others also broke down the color barrier for nonwhite actors.

The depiction of women during this decade also had starts and fits. In shows as diverse as Police Woman (Angie Dickenson), Buck Rogers, and Charlie’s Angels, women traded on their sexuality in return for featuring as leads in dramas and sitcoms. The cheesecake factor, singlehandedly created by producer Spelling, defined many of the portrayals of women during this period, where good looks and sexuality stood in for serious depictions of strong and intelligent women.

Still, there were exceptions. Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter, and The Bionic Woman, starring Lindsay Wagner, albeit as equally cheesy as most 1970s TV, nonetheless had strong female leads that critics crowed as feminist role models. The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured a working woman in a newsroom. One of the first TV sitcoms to take place primarily in the workplace, The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured a lead who was smart, strong, and quirky, and actress Mary Tyler Moore became America’s sweetheart for it. The aforementioned sitcom Maude featured television’s first feminist (Bea Arthur) and approached many feminist issues (such as abortion) that other sitcoms wouldn’t dare touch.

Other shows, such as the Nancy Drew Mysteries, Alice, One Day at A Time, Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off Rhoda, and others, featured strong, quirky, and interesting female leads.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The 1970s TV Revolution

The 1970s opened the way for alternative sexuality on television as the sex, drugs, and rock and roll ethics of the 1960s became mainstream.

Three’s Company, starring John Ritter and Suzanne Sommers, was about a straight man who moved in with two beautiful roommates but pretended to be gay to deflect attention away from the conservative landlord played by Norman Fell. The sitcom played on the loose, freewheeling attitudes toward sexuality during the 1970s and featured what would be one of television’s first treatment of homosexuality, albeit in this case for laughs. The soap opera spoof Soap featured the first gay character in prime time, played by Billy Crystal, courting controversy from conservative groups. But the first depiction of homosexuality on television occurred earlier in the decade with the PBS documentary An American Family.

Considered the first reality TV program in the same vein as the later MTV hit program The Real World, cameras followed the exploits of a typical suburban family, The Louds. The show became groundbreaking when one of the Loud children, Lance, came out of the closet and announced his homosexuality to his family.

As American attitudes toward sex and drugs relaxed during this decade, television pushed the envelope over what could and couldn’t be depicted, although these depictions were still focused under a rather conservative lens.

Likewise, family dramas and sitcoms experienced a seismic shift during this decade. Where in decades past, family sitcoms represented the nuclear family unit with the father and mother as the ultimate authority figures, family dramas began to slowly address the problems attendant with modern families, including divorce, teen sexuality, drugs, and dysfunction. Even sunny, innocuous sitcoms like The Brady Bunch explored the problems concerning combined families, an issue with which many Americans were dealing in the age of high divorce rates, though admittedly, the parents in this program were widowed rather than divorced.

Later in the decade, the CBS sitcom One Day at A Time featured a divorced mother raising her two teenage daughters and often dealt with the problems of dating, teen sexuality, and drugs as part of the show’s weekly situational comedy. Family drama Eight Is Enough, starring Dick Van Patten, likewise dealt with the issues of a stepmother marrying into a ready-made family after actress Diana Hyland, who played the first Mrs. Bradford in the series, passed away and was replaced by actress Betty Buckley. The ABC drama Family (Sada Thompson and James Broderick) likewise dealt with important issues such as divorce, alcoholism, and lesbianism, a far cry from the simple troubles the Beav got into during the 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver.

Even a seemingly traditional family drama like Little House and the Prairie often resorts to “special episodes” to address social issues that were of concern to 1970s audiences.

The Rise of Variety Shows in the 1970s

By and large, however, most televisions during the 1970s were inoffensive and superficial. Variety shows were popular forms of entertainment with such shows as The Sonny and Cher Show, Donnie & Marie, Burns & Schreiber Comedy Hour, Captain and Tennille Show, Dean Martin Show, Flip Wilson, Hee Haw, Lawrence Welk Show, The Leslie Uggams Show, and various others all made their way onto primetime with varying degrees of success.

Variety shows featured musical performances and skits that were otherwise wholesome to family audiences but were dreadful in both execution and humor. These programs were very much of their time and appear dated to today’s audiences.

There were two shows, though, that appeared during the 1970s, which were ahead of their time. In 1976, the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live debuted, featuring the Not Ready for Prime Time Players (Bill Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, etc.).

SNL was the first TV show that was geared specifically to the baby boom generation, featuring humor, music, and topics popular with that demographic. It quickly developed a reputation in the entertainment industry and with fans alike as one of the hippest shows on air.

The Richard Pryor Show, which had a brief run a year later, starred the edgy black comedian and featured future comedy stars such as Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, Paul Mooney, and others among its cast and writing staff. Edgy and daring, The Richard Pryor Show tackled issues such as racism in smart and funny ways but quickly earned disfavor with studio executives who thought the show was unappealing to their largely white audience. The show was canceled after a few episodes, but the show’s style of humor would go on to influence shows like the 1990s Fox sketch comedy In Living Color.

British TV’s Impact on 1970s American Screens

Television during the 1970s was also heavily influenced by programs from across the pond, as Hollywood executives turned to British TV for inspiration.

Shows like All in the Family (Till Death Do Us Part), Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son), Three’s Company (Man About the House), and others were all based on British versions. But Hollywood remakes of British TV weren’t the only way in which the English influenced American television. British television shows such as The Benny Hill Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, The Avengers, and The Saint, aired in the United States and were just as popular.

Masterpiece Theater’s popular miniseries Upstairs Downstairs set off a wave of miniseries that were likewise popular with American audiences. The 1976 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, based on the Irwin Shaw novel, was a hit with audiences.

But in 1977, ABC scored a monstrous hit in the miniseries Roots, based on the book by author Alex Haley. Roots, which featured Haley’s family history beginning in Africa and later during antebellum slavery in the American South, was a success in more than one way. Not only was it a ratings winner, but the show also successfully introduced the issue of America’s history with slavery into the national dialogue and encouraged African Americans to research their own family roots. The miniseries also featured a wide array of black actors and presented images of African Americans that contradicted the sitcoms that were also popular during this period.

News programs such as 60 Minutes also proved popular with American audiences as news correspondent Mike Wallace grilled politicians and corporate CEOs alike on any number of issues.

In the 1960s, news broadcasts became an important instrument for Americans to learn more about the world. The Senate Watergate hearings were broadcast between May 17 and August 7, 1976, and were watched by approximately 85% of the viewing audience during various points in the televised hearings. During the Iran hostage crisis, journalist Ted Koppel made a name for himself by airing consecutive nightly episodes chronicling the event until its resolution in 1981. The show proved so popular and powerful with audiences that ABC continued the program under the banner of Nightline, which Koppel hosted until he retired in 2006.

Nixon’s resignation speech and his later interviews with British journalist Sir David Frost, which was his first interview since his resignation from office, also became high watermark periods for television during the 1970s.

As we look back at the television landscape of the 1970s, it’s clear that this was a decade of revolution and evolution. Television became more than just a source of entertainment; it became a mirror reflecting societal changes, a platform for challenging norms, and a catalyst for cultural shifts. The shows of the 1970s broke new ground in addressing previously taboo subjects, expanding genre diversity, and engaging with audiences in meaningful ways. Their influence is still felt today, not only in the context of modern television but also in the broader cultural acceptance of diversity and inclusion. The 1970s were indeed a golden era of television, one that reshaped the medium and its relationship with viewers in enduring and significant ways.

By examining the television shows of the 1970s, we gain insight into the societal dynamics of the era and the ways in which media can influence and reflect cultural change. This period of television history underscores the power of storytelling to challenge, educate, and inspire, leaving a legacy that continues to influence the industry and audiences alike.

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