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Blockbuster TV

Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era

Janet Staiger

Publication Year: 2000

Archie Bunker. Jed. Laverne and Shirley. Cliff Huxtable. Throughout the entire history of American prime-time television only four sitcoms have been true blockbusters, with Nielsen ratings far above the second- and third-rated programs. Weekly, millions of Americans of every age were making a special effort to turn on the set to see what Archie, Jed, Laverne, and Cliff were doing that week. The wild popularity of these shows--All in the Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, Laverne & Shirley (and its partner Happy Days), and The Cosby Show--left commentators bewildered by the tastes and preferences of the American public. How do we account for the huge appeal of these sitcoms, and how does it figure into the history of network prime-time television?

Janet Staiger answers these questions by detailing the myriad factors that go into the construction of mass audiences. Treating the four shows as case studies, she deftly balances factual explanations (for instance, the impact of VCRs and cable on network domination of TV) with more interpretative ones (for example, the transformation of The Beverly Hillbillies from a popular show detested by the critics, to a blockbuster after its elevation as the critics' darling), and juxtaposes industry-based reasons (for example, the ways in which TV shows derive success from placement in the weekly programming schedule) with stylistic explanations (how, for instance, certain shows create pleasure from a repetition and variation of a formula).

Staiger concludes that because of changes in the industry, these shows were a phenomenon that may never be repeated. And while the western or the night-time soap has at times captured public attention, Blockbuster TV maintains that the sitcom has been THE genre to attract people to the tube, and that without understanding the sitcom, we can't properly understand the role of television in our culture.

Published by: NYU Press

Blockbuster TV


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

This little book isn’t meant to be anything like a full picture of the television industry, American broadcasting audiences, or the events around the four situation comedies studied. Rather it is designed to be provocative—a gesture toward thinking about and researching the public reception of TV programs in relation to the institutional dynamics of network-era...

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Chapter 1: Introduction

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pp. 1-53

Sigmund Freud writes at the beginning of Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious that two reasons exist to study humor. One is “an intimate connection between all mental happenings.”1 The other: “A new joke acts almost like an event of universal interest; it is passed from one person to another like the news of the latest victory” (p. 15). Two notions...

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Chapter 2: The Beverly Hillbillies

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pp. 54-80

In May 1961 Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton N. Minow attacked television as “a vast wasteland.” In September 1962, The Beverly Hillbillies premiered on CBS, almost as proof of Minow’s assertion. If, however, Minow was correct, by the end of the season, 36 percent of all television homes in the United States were...

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Chapter 3: All in the Family

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pp. 81-111

Whereas The Beverly Hillbillies went out of its way to avoid controversy, All in the Family courted it. In fact, Dorothy Rabinowitz, television critic publishing in Commentary in 1975, called All in the Family ’s creator, Norman Lear, the “entrepreneur of the controversial.”1 That’s a fairly accurate label, and Lear may even have liked it. Certainly...

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Chapter 4: Laverne & Shirley

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pp. 112-140

In fall 1975, a New York City exhibitor tried to explain the phenomenon of the midnight movie. His explanation was that the youth of ages eighteen to twenty-five had “nothing to do. Nothing. Zero!” Of these nothings, the choices seemed to be two: “[E]very kid who owns a pair of blue jeans thinks he’s gonna find the spirit of his generation in a midnight...

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Chapter 5: The Cosby Show

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pp. 141-159

In September 1984, The Cosby Show premiered. In hindsight, it is likely to be the last of television’s prime-time programs to achieve a blockbuster audience. Clearly, in the future many programs will attract good numbers and good demographics, but the impact of cable and video and digital recording and playback permits late capitalism’s dream: the...

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Epilogue: Some Final Observations

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pp. 160-175

At the beginning of chapter 1, I noted that Sigmund Freud believed that two reasons existed to study jokes: one was that all mental happenings are connected, the other that a joke passes from person to person like the “news of the latest victory.” Reasons to understand the very popular (and not popular) television sitcom seem the same. Whether the very popular...


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pp. 177-204

Select Bibliography

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pp. 205-213


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pp. 215-220

About the Author

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p. 221

E-ISBN-13: 9780814786994
E-ISBN-10: 0814786995
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814797563
Print-ISBN-10: 0814797563

Page Count: 234
Publication Year: 2000

OCLC Number: 50706020
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Blockbuster TV

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Subject Headings

  • Situation comedies (Television programs) -- United States.
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