1970s TV: Relevance and Escapism
Disillusionment seemed to be the key mood of the 1970s, as the Watergate scandal led Americans to become more skeptical of government and their elected leaders. Many of the so-called radical ideas of the 1960s, such as the sexual revolution, racial equality and women’s liberation, became part of the mainstream of American culture. The start of the decade also saw the birth of the environmental movement, as the first Earth Day was held in 1970. Not surprisingly, many 1970s TV shows fed off the events of the day, resulting in series such as All in the Family and Saturday Night Live tackling previously taboo topics such as race, abortion, homosexuality and religion.
On the other hand, other situation comedies of the decade continued to feature idealized families, such as the Cunninghams of Happy Days and the Bradys of The Brady Bunch. These fictional TV families undoubtedly resonated with a whole generation of children who grew up in single-parent households or had to care for themselves as both parents were forced to work to make ends meet. The seventies also saw the debut of the educational program Sesame Street, which provided the first major showcase for Jim Henson’s Muppets.
Another major trend in 1970s TV shows was the popularity of cop and detective shows, such as Charlie’s Angels, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, The Rockford Files and Starsky and Hutch. While many of these shows were gritty dramas that focused on the more realistic side of police work, others took a more light-hearted approach that emphasized humor and sexuality. The decade also saw the birth of a new television format: the mini-series, which featured stories told over a limited number of episodes. Popular mini-series of the time included Rich Man, Poor Man, Holocaust and Centennial; the most successful, however, was undoubtedly Roots, whose final episodes were watched by over 70% of the total viewing audience, or 130 million viewers.