Blockbuster TV

Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era

234 pages

October, 2000

ISBN: 9780814797563



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Janet Staiger teaches cultural, gender, sexuality, and media studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Her recent books are Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception and Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era (both available from NYU Press).

All books by Janet Staiger

Archie Bunker. Jed. Laverne and Shirley. Cliff Huxtable. Throughout the entire history of American prime-time television only four sitcoms have been true blockbusters, with Nielsen ratings far above the second- and third-rated programs. Weekly, millions of Americans of every age were making a special effort to turn on the set to see what Archie, Jed, Laverne, and Cliff were doing that week. The wild popularity of these shows--All in the Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, Laverne & Shirley (and its partner Happy Days), and The Cosby Show--left commentators bewildered by the tastes and preferences of the American public. How do we account for the huge appeal of these sitcoms, and how does it figure into the history of network prime-time television?

Janet Staiger answers these questions by detailing the myriad factors that go into the construction of mass audiences. Treating the four shows as case studies, she deftly balances factual explanations (for instance, the impact of VCRs and cable on network domination of TV) with more interpretative ones (for example, the transformation of The Beverly Hillbillies from a popular show detested by the critics, to a blockbuster after its elevation as the critics' darling), and juxtaposes industry-based reasons (for example, the ways in which TV shows derive success from placement in the weekly programming schedule) with stylistic explanations (how, for instance, certain shows create pleasure from a repetition and variation of a formula).

Staiger concludes that because of changes in the industry, these shows were a phenomenon that may never be repeated. And while the western or the night-time soap has at times captured public attention, Blockbuster TV maintains that the sitcom has been THE genre to attract people to the tube, and that without understanding the sitcom, we can't properly understand the role of television in our culture.


  • "If you thought Seinfeld was a blockbuster sitcom, think again. Janet Staiger confronts the issue of the popularity of TV sitcoms and comes up with surprising results. A must-read for classes in television and popular culture."

    —Jane Feuer, author of Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism

  • "In this ingenious exploration, Janet Staiger presents three decades of lively public debate about television's role in U.S. culture. Weaving together research on audience, TV's promotional strategies, industry perspectives, and the diverse ingredients of comedy, Staiger crafts a vivid landscape of our common cultural pleasures."

    —Mary Beth Haralovich, coeditor of Television, History and American Culture: Feminist Critical Essays

  • "A unique and intriguing study of a phenomenon the likes of which we may never see again. Everyone involved in teaching or observing U.S. TV culture—and on some level, most of us are—should read this book."

    —Michele Hilmes, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • "Provides fresh insight into one of the most popularly discussed and critically mysterious of media phenomenon. Rather than attempting to find a magic formula that explains the success of ‘must-see' TV shows, Janet Staiger examines how diverse and variable historical factors contributed to the popularity of hit sitcoms. In the process, she makes a vivid contribution to the cultural study of television and signals important directions for future research."

    —Barbara Klinger, Director, Film and Media, Indiana University

  • "Staiger's Blockbuster TV artfully balances formal analysis, inflected with and informed by various theoretical perspectives, of four different sitcoms with an examination of their reception.