The 1950’s were called the Golden Age of Television. This decade was also a golden age of social mood and, more literally, a golden age on Wall Street. The 1950s and mid-1960s saw the strongest real economic growth of the 20th century. This growth was accompanied by a booming stock market that increased dramatically during the 1950’s and until 1966. The Dow soared more than five-fold during this time, from under 200 to over 1000.
The TV series of the 1950s and 1960s reflected the buoyant mood of the times. Comedy was one of the two genres that dominated the top ten Nielsen ratings in these two decades. Despite criticisms of the era’s conformism and lack of equal rights, the happiness and contentment of the majority of Americans in the years after World War II were reflected in the stock market’s rise. This upbeat attitude made people want to laugh and drew them to comedies.
More than a dozen comedy series were each rated in the top ten by Nielsen for two years or more in the 1950s and 60s: The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, The Red Skelton Show, Candid Camera, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffeth Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., The Dean Martin Show, Bewitched, The Danny Thomas Show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Mayberry R.F.D.. Green Acres landed in the top ten for one season.
I Love Lucy was the highest rated program for four years in the 1950’s—and number two and three during its other two years. It ended its run at the top of the ratings. Audiences loved the zany clowning and physical comedy of Lucille Ball. The episode “Lucy goes to the hospital” drew a 71.7 share, one of the highest ratings ever for a TV series.
Two other comedies, The Beverly Hillbillies and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, were the highest rated shows for four years in the 1960’s. Despite the show’s panning by critics, implausible premise, and characters that were caricatures rather than real people, The Beverly Hillbillies ranked in the top 12 most-watched series for seven of its nine years.
This was also the decade of the fatuous sitcom, Gilligan’s Island, about a group of shipwrecked castaways stranded on a deserted island. The actress who played the wife of the clueless millionaire, Thurston Howell (played by Jim Backus), accepted the role because the pilot was filmed on location in Hawaii and she viewed the job as nothing more than a free vacation, confident that a show this silly would, in her words, “never go." It ran for three full seasons and almost 100 episodes.
Contrast this show with a post-2000 series, Lost, during a bearish market climate. This series also featured people stranded on a tropical island following a crash. But the similarities ended there. The emotional tone of Lost was completely different from Gilligan's Island, as malevolent forces threatened the survival of the characters who engaged in conflict with each other and had histories of family dysfunction. Even the shows' opening theme music differed drastically: upbeat and energetic on Gilligan's Island, a sense of looming dread on Lost.
The development of a Gilligan's Island movie was announced in December, 2013, 46 years after the TV series ended. Both the movie and television versions were conceived during bull markets. The movie was announced at the peak of a 5 year rise in the stock market during which the market rose 175 percent from its 2009 low.
During periods of negative social mood, situation comedies that aired during years of positive mood often seem, when viewed in retrospect, lame or ludicrously farcical. But any show’s appeal must be analyzed within the context of an era’s mass mood. Viewers are entertained by the themes and tone of shows that most closely match their predominant emotions and feelings of well-being. Happy viewers are drawn to light-hearted fare; inanity that is perceived as frivolous and mindless in bad times may be a ratings virtue during good times.
The social fabric of the nation began to change with the upheavals starting in the late 1960s, but the sketch comedy series Laugh-In remained in the Nielsen top ten until the end of the decade. As Pete Kendall of Elliott Wave International observed regarding Laugh-In, “Television, which as a whole reflects the mainstream, tends to hold onto positive mood trends longer than cutting edge media. True to form, TV kept its upbeat image in the late 1960s, and didn’t cater to the new bear market mood until the old trend was utterly exhausted."
Along with comedies, the other most highly rated genre of the 1950s and 1960s was westerns. Starting with the 1953 season, with only one exception (The $64,000 Question game show in 1956), a comedy or western was the most popular series every year until 1970. Westerns became the most watched type of show starting in 1958.
Westerns of the era entailed several characteristics ideally suited to upbeat social mood. As Bob Prechter has noted, action and adventure are bull market genres in television and movies; their energy and excitement appeal to optimistic, energized viewers. Also, theatrical themes during bull markets portray clear distinctions between good and evil. There is no confusion; good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats. Moral complexity or ambiguity is essentially absent. The main characters are heroic. They are not conflicted or tormented about their purpose.
The hero’s mission in westerns---usually to defend his friends, town, citizens, the law or lofty principles---is clearly defined and pursued expeditiously. He straightforwardly follows conventional codes of ethical conduct, even when dealing with unethical antagonists. His righteous struggle usually ends successfully with the restoration of the rule of law and moral order.
For each of the five years beginning in 1957, fully three to seven of the top 10 shows were westerns. In 1959, a remarkable 26 westerns aired during prime time. Starting in 1956, when western series first appeared on TV, at least one western was in the Nielsen top ten every year until the 1970s. In the 1950s and 60s, bull market mood was riding high in the saddle.
Gunsmoke was the top rated show for four consecutive years beginning in 1958. The unflappable, incorruptible Marshall Dillon of Dodge City always caught his man. The good-hearted and likeable supporting characters of Doc, Miss Kitty, and deputy Chester elicited warm feelings from viewers and provided comic relief. The western Wagon Train, which chronicled the adventures of a wagon train on its way to California, took over the top Nielsen slot in 1962.
From 1965 to 1967, Bonanza was the number one network series. It ran for 14 seasons, the second longest network western series ever behind Gunsmoke. The program depicted the adventures of the widowed Ben Cartwright, the strong, wise patriarch of the Ponderosa ranch, and his three sons: the suave oldest son Adam, warm-hearted gentle giant Hoss, and impetuous Little Joe. They were always the "good guys" who triumphed over their clearly-defined adversaries.