Bullish 1980s and 1990s Shows

By the end of the 1970s, people were tired of the decade’s discord and anxiety. Social mood turned upward in the 1980s and a powerful new bull market was launched.

The pent-up desire for better times found expression in part in a preoccupation with wealth and those who created it. The early years of the Reagan presidency coincided with the TV series Dallas as the top-rated Nielsen series in 1981, 1982, and 1984. Its spin-off, Dynasty, took the top spot in 1985. During this period the stock market doubled from 1980-1985.

These two prime time soap operas were about the families of oil tycoons, the Ewings and Carringtons, and their intrigues and power struggles. The programs celebrated luxury and excess.

The central character on Dallas was J. R. Ewing, the unscrupulous and unhappily married son who frequently clashed with his morally upstanding and happily married younger brother Bobby. The ethical portrayals of the characters were clearly drawn; Bobby consistently displayed integrity despite J. R.’s conniving. The characters on Dynasty were similarly unambiguous, a thematic tendency during bull markets.

What else was popular on TV in the bullish 1980s? As in the bullish 1950s and 60s, there was an enormous demand for comedies, which again emerged as the most highly rated genre.

Series in the annual top ten in the 1980s included The Cosby ShowFamily TiesM*A*S*HThree’s CompanyCheersMoonlightingThe Golden GirlsRoseanneThe Love BoatThe JeffersonsNight CourtAmerica’s Funniest Home VideosAliceThe Wonder YearsKate and AllieWho’s the BossGrowing PainsEmpty Nest and A Different WorldNewhartAlf and The Fall Guy were also popular comedies near the top ten. Comedy series proliferate during bull markets.

The Cosby Show, a sitcom about the upper-middle class Huxtable family, sat atop the Nielsen ratings for the entire second half of the decade, from 1986-1990. Along with All in the Family, it was the only show in television history to reach the top of the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons. The Cosby Show was reminiscent of the paternalistic sitcoms of the bullish 1950s and early 1960s in which families were happy and father knew best. The sitcom Roseanne tied with The Cosby Show for the top ranking in 1990.

Two sharp bear markets occurred in 1987 and 1990, lasting two and three months respectively. Because they were so short-lived and were confined to the summer hiatus between TV seasons, they had only a minor effect on television programming. By the time the regular fall season began, social mood picked up and the stock market resumed its rise.

The only discernible impact of the 1987 market crash was the advent of “dramedy”, shows featuring a mixture of comedy and drama. As Joshua Alston of Newsweek noted in December, 1987, two months after the market crash, “prime time TV’s sense of humor has turned decidedly black” and is “occasionally overloaded with angst.” Dramedies such as Frank’s Place and Hooperman dealt with serious social issues, and Slap Maxwell was about an abrasive sportswriter who “cracked incredibly tasteless jokes about homosexuals, hysterectomies, and glass eyes.”

But these shows did not rise to the top tier of the ratings during the 1987-88 TV season. As social mood churned higher, these less purely comedic shows soon faded to black and were cancelled.

At the start of the 1991 TV season, the year after the short and shallow 1990 bear market, the networks tailored even their dramas to fall in line with the improving public mood. In a story titled “Network dramas wear happy faces,” TV Guide reported that the networks “believed that the audience had turned its back on the bleak and bitter. So let there be light. That appears to be the mandate for new and returning dramatic series: the characters will clearly loosen up and lighten up, and the stories will have a much more positive spin.”

The article reported “the determination by networks not to alienate the audience with too much depression” and described “the new wave in TV drama. A wave that’s upbeat, friendly and nothing to worry your pretty little head about."

The cheery atmosphere in the U.S. accelerated to euphoric levels in the 1990s. This decade was one of the most bullish in stock market history, with an increase of several hundred percent in all the major market averages and the creation of an enormous market bubble. TV viewers and executives were laughing and the comedies kept coming.

Several of the late 1980s comedies remained in the top ten in the 1990s, along with new comedy series such as Home Improvement, Friends, Murphy Brown, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Designing Women, Full House, Northern Exposure, Grace Under Fire, Coach, The Single Guy, Suddenly Susan, The Naked Truth, Fired Up, Caroline in the City, Veronica’s Closet, Union Square and Jesse. Comedy was ubiquitous in 1990s television.

While The Cosby Show and Roseanne ushered in the decade at the top of the ratings, Cheers and Home Improvement were number one in 1991 and 1994, and Seinfeld in 1995 and 1998.

Vacuous program concepts are not necessarily an obstacle to high ratings during upbeat social mood. In fact the creators of Seinfeld, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, pitched it as a “show about nothing.” The episodes focused on minutiae rather than on typical sitcom themes and situations. No matter—the show was still a big hit; even “nothing” seems hilarious when positive social psychology is in force.