The Boob tube is a Societal Mood Tube

What can the past 60 years of television programs tell us about social mood? And what do current shows reveal? Television is a mass medium that provides a window on mass psychology. Widely watched TV series are generally aligned with the dominant mood of the times. Major trends in public sentiment are reflected by the popularity of hit TV series.

At any given time, many different TV series are broadcast on the major networks and cable channels. Its easy to cherry-pick individual examples of series that coincidentally happen to match any particular social mood. But using selective examples of TV programs to illustrate mood trends can yield spurious conclusions. A more systematic approach is needed.

To avoid selecting isolated examples of TV series that might artificially show a link to social mood as reflected in the stock market, an objective measure of the popularity of particular programs is required. Fortunately, a quantitative measure is available. The public appeal of TV shows is gauged by metrics such as Nielsen ratings which measure audience “share”—the percentage of TV households in the nation that tune in to particular programs.

Nielsen ratings extend back in time to the beginning of national network television. Although the plots, characters, and settings of TV shows may change from season to season, viewers are drawn to series with major themes and emotional tenor that resonate with their own psychological states. Because viewers continuously vote in real time with their remote controls, top-rated TV series are a coincident indicator of social mood.

I examined the TV series in the Nielsen annual top ten for every year of the history of national network TV from 1951 to 2009, a timespan of 59 years. These are season-long series, not just single TV episodes. As the articles in this section demonstrate, distinct relationships exist between the types of series that have been popular and the state of the stock market’s mood throughout the past six decades. The entire history of top-rated television series can be understood in part by viewing it through the lens of social mood. The nation's emotional state is continuously projected on the small screen.

Perhaps future socionomic research will be able to identify major turning points in social mood and markets via changes in the Nielsen top 10. For example, an early warning of a downturn in social mood may be indicated when a negative social mood TV series suddenly pops into the weekly top 10 for the first time. Similarly, when a positive mood series emerges in the top 10 that was previously dominated by negative TV series, an upturn in social mood and the markets may be signaled. As the mood trend becomes more persistent and entrenched, more TV series that are aligned with the dominant mood would enter the Nielsen top 10.