Day 443: Unkillable Television

originally published March 18, 2013

It’s easy to look at prime time television and come to the conclusion that there simply isn’t much fresh or original going on. Have a look at the top ten ratings from the Nielsen people for the week ending March 4, the most recent they have on their website:

  • NCIS, which has been rolling for ten years now
  • The Big Bang Theory, a formulaic sitcom
  • NCIS: Los Angeles (see above)
  • Person Of Interest, which I don’t really know anything about. Maybe this is a fresh, original series. Could be the exception.
  • Two And A Half Men, which… seriously? Come on, people. Why are you still enabling the continuation of this horrible, horrible show?
  • American Idol, three times that week, all in the top ten. An eleven-season-old show.
  • 60 Minutes, which has been on forever.
  • and Blue Bloods, a standard cop show.

(though it does feature Tom Selleck’s mustache and an unusual number of podiums for a cop show)

There is longevity in formulaic programming. When something works, the network likes to keep it around, bleeding every last drop of creativity from the writing staff, then hiring a new writing staff to push the withered, empty shells of the last crew aside and take over when necessary. Then they hire other people to take that idea and copy it as closely as possible. Set up the same show in a different city (thank you NCIS and CSI), or simply duplicate the series in some other way (I’m still waiting for Law & Order: Traffic Infractions).

Cable television operates under a different routine. They can wrap up series simply because they’ve finished telling the story. If The Wire had aired on CBS, we’d probably already be drowning in The Wire: Philadelphia and The Wire: Mall Security by now. Breaking Bad is closing in on their conclusion after five seasons. It makes sense – we don’t need a gimmick to keep the series going. Sometimes it’s good to end the thing before your original target demographic now has children who fit into that same demographic.

The Simpsons is not only the longest-running scripted show in prime time, but with twenty-four seasons of material, it is the longest-running scripted show in history. When it premiered, I was in the tenth grade, George Bush (the first one) was president, and there was still a Soviet Union. Next on the longest-ever list is Gunsmoke and the original Law & Order, both of which finished at twenty seasons. That said, Gunsmoke still has the edge in total episodes, with 635 to The Simpsons’ 523 (depending on when this count was taken). Given that Fox’s animated flagship series will be wrapping up after season #25, it’ll probably never catch up.

The next-oldest scripted show on our small screens today is another cartoon, though in all fairness South Park only cranks out around 13 episodes a year. Still, sixteen years with no signs of quitting is fairly impressive. I’m not entirely sure Law & Order: SVU (14 seasons) or CSI (12 seasons) will outlive it. It’s possible.

What makes a show stick around so long? In the case of the Law & Order and CSI franchises, it comes down to predictability. The characters may change, but they aren’t really all that important to the show’s formula. The show works for the same reason you’ll never see a continual-story show like Lost make it on this list – you can skip a week or a year and still jump back in without losing step with what’s happening. With Lost you might end up completely befuddled simply with a poorly-timed bathroom break.

The real secret to longevity on TV is to not be a scripted series. Have a look at the top ten longest-running American shows of all time:

# 10: Inside the NFL – Originally an HBO show, back before anyone knew if HBO would stick around. It switched over to Showtime five years ago, and probably won’t be going anywhere soon. 35 seasons – one more than ABC’s 20/20, which is also still going strong.

# 9: Wall Street Week – Good ol’ PBS knows how to keep a show running. Sesame Street doesn’t make this list since we’re only talking prime-time. This one yapped about business affairs from 1970 through 2005. 35 seasons.

# 8: Saturday Night Live – The show that just won’t die. Not only that, it seems to be able to perpetually refresh their cast of future stars. Even their crappiest season, that wretched Season 11 that they outright apologized for in the opener to Season 12, they still managed to book Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, Jon Lovitz and Dennis Miller as regulars. 37 seasons.

# 7: Nova – Another PBS classic. This one is just six months older than me, having kicked off in March of 1974 and showing no signs of stopping. When I was growing up, this was the show you’d most likely see an episode of in school. 38 seasons.

# 6: Masterpiece – I care about this show so little, I didn’t even know they’d changed the name from Masterpiece Theatre. This show is technically scripted material (as are several on this list), but its scripts are adaptations of novels or biographies, or one-off original dramas. 38 seasons.

# 5: Monday Night Football – It will simply never go away. NFL football is the most popular sport in the country, and Monday night is sacred ground. I think the Sunday Night Football broadcast crew is a little tighter, but nothing short of Armageddon will knock this show off the air. 42 seasons.

# 4: 60 Minutes – Yes, that little stopwatch has been ticking since September of 1968, and given that the show still lands in the ratings top ten, it’s a good bet CBS will hang on to this forever. And Morley Safer, who has been one of the hosts since the show launched, will probably never leave. 43 seasons.

# 3: Washington Week – The only show on PBS that’s older than PBS itself. This public affairs show actually started out on National Educational Television, which fortunately turned into PBS, unlike The Learning Channel, which turned into RealityCrapGarbage Television. 44 seasons.

# 2: The Wonderful World Of Disney – Shared by CBS, ABC and NBC for most of its run, this show actually predates Disneyland. It spent a few years on the Disney Channel before ABC, who is owned by Disney, put it back on network television. They finally killed the series on Christmas Eve, 2008, with a broadcast of the first Chronicles of Narnia movie. 52 seasons.

At this point, I feel obligated to put in a mention for Dr. Who – not an American show, but the thing has been going for fifty years, and has consistently maintained an American following of sci-fi geeks for most of that time.

# 1: Hallmark Hall Of Fame – Purveyors of schlocky TV movies since my mother was too young to stay up and watch them, and often featuring stars no one cares about, like Treat Williams or Karen Allen, this show seems to be perpetual. It aired on NBC for almost 30 years, then switched to CBS, PBS (for one episode), ABC, then CBS. CBS tried to cancel it officially in 2011, but ABC brought it back. 61 seasons and counting.

Like I said, a long-lasting idea is an easily-repeated idea. The freshest, most original series will never make this list, which makes being among the longest-running shows a somewhat malodorous distinction.

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