I started this the other day and lost my work when Works "ceased to function" when I saved the file... or thought I saved the file.
The inspiration behind this post was something that I saw in Bill Crider's most excellent blog Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine. In this particular case the blog entry directed me to an article on TV.com, called The Most Overrated Shows On Television. The article has staff members from the blog, cloaked in the protective veil of anonymity ("to protect them from your hateful comments") these people listed eight shows that they consider overrated: Lost, The Office, Weeds, American Idol, NCIS, Glee, Mad Men, and 30 Rock. I won't go into detail about the article, but the quality of the comments ranged from trivial to downright inane (just check out the comments on NCIS which seems to focus more on Pauly Perrette's wardrobe and whether or not Michael Weatherly and Mark Harmon are "hot" as reasons why the show is "overrated." That sort of "reasoning" together with the anonymous nature of the writers devalued the article in my opinion. Still it did serve as inspiration for this article, a look at the highest rated shows of each year from 1950 to today... or at least as close to today as YouTube and copyright restrictions will let me get.
Here's the way I want to work it. I will list the top three shows of each year together with the percentage of the nation's televisions that were tuned to the show. I'll try to post a comment on the shows as well as one or two clips from the show. If clips from the show are unavailable or the show has already been featured on this list then I'll find clips from the next highest show, and so on. The data is taken from The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows.
Texaco Star Theater 61.6%, Fireside Theater 52.6%, Philco TV Playhouse 45.3%.
Texaco Star Theater was of course the show that made Milton Berle into Mr. TV. The show started as a variety series but became increasingly Berle's show. Eventually Berle would leave sponsor Texaco and would star in his own series, The Milton Berle Show which ran until 1956, and retained much the same format as what the Texaco Star Theater had become by the end of his time with the show. These viewership figures show that everybody watched Berle. Fireside Theater was a half-hour drama anthology. Later it would be renamed The Jane Wyman Show after its most famous host. The show ran from 1949 to 1958. Also debuting in 1948 The Philco TV Playhouse was an hour long dramatic anthology series. By 1950 the show had evolved into a mix of adapted and original plays, musicals featuring actors who either were stars or who would become major stars, including Anthony Quinn, Grace Kelly, Paul Newman, Julie Harris and, in the last episode of the series, Sidney Poitier.
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts 53.8%, Texaco Star Theater 52.0%, I Love Lucy 50.9%
Arthur Godfrey was a long-time radio host who made the transition from radio to television with not one but two variety shows, Arthur Godfrey And His Friends, and this show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. In 1951-52 both shows were in the top ten in viewership. This really wasn't an amateur show since most of the acts that appeared on the show had some professional experience but needed that "big break." Among the stars "discovered" by Godfrey's Scouts were Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Leslie Uggams, Roy Clark and Patsy Cline. Famously the show passed on a couple of acts that really went somewhere – Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. As for I Love Lucy, well wait for the next clips.
1952-53: I Love Lucy 67.3%, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts 54.7%, Arthur Godfrey And His Friends 47.1%
What can you say about I Love Lucy? Well how about this; between 1951 when the show debuted and 1957 when the last half-hour episodes were shot it was only out of first place in the ratings twice, once in 1951 and once in 1955 when The $64,000 Question was the hottest show on TV. The show marked the debut of the three camera filming system for comedies (so Desi and Lucy wouldn't have to move to New York to do the show), and while it was not the first series to feature a star having a baby it was the first mainstream series to do so. The spike in viewership in this season is undoubtedly explained by the fact that this season marked the birth of Little Ricky. Arthur Godfrey And His Friends was Godfrey's second series, a music show which featured a variety of acts. This season was the one that featured Julius LaRosa whose firing by Godfrey was a major new story.
I'm also including an in-show performance of Babalu by Desi Arnaz because, well I like it!
1953-54: I Love Lucy 58.8%, Dragnet 53.2%, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts 54.7%
Dragnet was in its third season and had built its audience significantly from its debut season in 1951-52. While those of us of a "certain age" remember the 1960's incarnation of the series as being unintentionally funny and certainly "square," the 1950s version of the series was the real deal, touching on subjects from gun control, juvenile delinquency and pornography to unwed mothers, child abandonment and pedophilia. The 1950s version of the show really was hard hitting (and I don't just mean the way that Joe Friday dealt with some suspects). Look for Lee Marvin in this one.
I Love Lucy 58.8%, The Jackie Gleason Show 42.4%, Dragnet 53.2%
When most of us think of Jackie Gleason on TV we think of The Honeymooners, but that show only ran for a single season, 1955-56. Before and after that single season of The Honeymooners was The Jackie Gleason Show, a comedy variety series with a heavy emphasis on sketch comedy. Gleason did shorter Honeymooners stories but had a huge number of characters including Reggie van Gleason III, Joe the Bartender, The Poor Soul and a host of others.
I think I'll try to run this format on a monthly basis.