Remembering Norman Lear, TV's Godfather Of The 1970s

Rarely has a luminary from television history been so honored on the occasion of his death like Norman Lear.

Lear died Tuesday at age 101. He is being rightfully remembered as, quite possibly, the most influential producer of prime-time shows in the history of television.

On Wednesday night, all five broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The CW -- simultaneously aired an in-memoriam card (pictured above) honoring Lear at 8 p.m. Eastern at the onset of prime time, a territory he ruled for the better part of the 1970s.

The honors and remembrances continue Friday night with a one-hour special on CBS, the network that partnered with Lear to make TV history. “Norman Lear: A Life On Television” airs from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern.

Norman Lear began his conquest of 1970s television with “All in the Family” in January 1971. The show emerged as America's top-rated prime-time show in its first full season, 1971-72, and remained No. 1 for four seasons more.



The Norman Lear TV shows on CBS reached a crescendo of sorts in the 1974-75 season when four of them were in the top 10 when the season ended: “All in the Family” (No. 1), “The Jeffersons” (No. 4), “Good Times” (No. 7) and “Maude” (No. 9).

All four shows were constructed around characters representing four different social scenarios.

“All in the Family” was about a working-class white man railing against the changes happening all around him in his neighborhood, his city -- New York -- and the world.

“The Jeffersons” was about a black man (one-time next-door neighbor of Archie Bunker) who became a successful businessman prosperous enough to “move on up” to a well-to-do white neighborhood in Manhattan.

By contrast, “Good Times” was about the struggles of a low-income African-American family experiencing hardships and “good times” in a Chicago housing project.

“Maude” was about a vocal, opinionated, married woman living in an upper middle-class community within commuting distance of Manhattan.

They were all breakthroughs in their way, but “All in the Family” was the father of them all. All these years later, it remains a wonder that the show was picked up in the first place.

Decisions to pick up, pay for, and air shows in the network television era were certainly, if not solely, dependent on their potential for profits from commercials.

CBS execs no doubt felt the hair on their arms stand up when they took the first meetings with Lear and he described what would come out of the mouth of Archie Bunker.

But somehow they must have still felt sponsors would go for it sufficiently to make money on it. I suppose they asked some of them and came away thinking they could get away with it.

Networks back then tended to proceed with extreme caution on these kinds of things. The aim of their business was to entertain people, not tick them off.

And yet, “All in the Family” made it onto prime-time television in America in 1971 and became arguably the most infamous and sensational TV show that ever aired.

Tens of millions watched it, and came back every week to do it again. They took sides -- basically, Archie vs. Meathead.

The battle lines were already drawn anyway, to paraphrase an old song from 1966. The strife of the 1960s was also old by 1971, which may have been one of the reasons CBS felt it was safe then to experiment with this new kind of situation comedy.

Television shows, particularly back then, rarely if ever ran ahead of cultural and social trends. At best, TV attempted to keep pace with them or, in many cases, stay at least a few steps behind them until it felt safe to embrace them.

Perhaps Norman Lear's greatest gift was that he may have been the only one who believed -- in fact, knew -- that the TV times they were a-changin’, and he became handsomely compensated for his prescience.

As noted here several times previously, the 1960s were TV's silliest decade. They began with a talking horse and ended with a flying nun.

The Lear shows are justifiably remembered and revered today for their bravery, but also, let it be said, for their earning power. The former would not have been possible without the latter.

But the lifespan of the Lear era in television was relatively short-lived. By the end of the 1970s, TV went in other directions.

You might say the 1970s in television were bracketed by “All in the Family” in 1971 and “B.J. and the Bear” in 1979. At least “Bear” the chimp didn’t talk like Mr. Ed.

4 comments about "Remembering Norman Lear, TV's Godfather Of The 1970s".
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  1. David Scardino from TV & Film Content Development, December 8, 2023 at 3:09 p.m.

    As a twentysomething member of the Young & Rubicam TV Department, I saw the pilot, I think, a few months before its January 1971 debut along with most of the members of my department. I had never seen anything like it, and the only thing I could compare the writing and storytelling to was the Broadway stage (where the subject matter and language would have not been out of place). Reaction of my co-workers was all over the place, though I would say the consensus was it woud do okay in NY, LA and Chicago and worse beyond. (One of our number, who later became head of the department, said "I think it could be the biggest thing to hit TV in years!") My memory is that the original ratings for those first 13 episodes were nothing notable and a bit short of usual CBS standards. Then the network did a very smart thing... they repeated those episodes in the summer and by the September 2nd season premiere, the viewing audience having caught up to the publicity, the show was a big hit. Very, very smart.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 8, 2023 at 3:37 p.m.

    As I recall,  the show was turned down by ABC  after shooting a pilot and the programming wizards at CBS were dead set against "All In The Family" after seeing a second pilot---but were overrulled by the then CBS president, Bob Woods.  The show was especially gripping as it was videotaped before a live audience. This allowed the TV viewer to see many background details very clearly---something that is not as true of filmed presentations---- and consequently, many viewers felt as if they were right there with Archie and his gang in that living room or at the dining tabe---a sensation that was unusual for its time.

    "All In The Family"was drawing average minute ratings in the low 20s---not bad, actually---in the summer and then exploded in the Nielsens when new episodes were shown in the fall. This was no accident ,as I note in my book, "TV Now & Then " ( Media Dynamics Inc. 2015 ) as, at the time,  there was a very strong backlash against the "lefty", anti-war---and everything else---protestors by conservative groups, especially of the blue collar type. So even though the producer was obviously mocking Archie's point of view a lot of people who agreed with him began to watch the show as it presented "their side's" opinions on TV for a change. In short, "All In The Family's" success was a case of perfect timing---as well as a great show making its mark.

  3. David Scardino from TV & Film Content Development replied, December 8, 2023 at 6:27 p.m.

    I of course will yield to my old (big) boss, especially as he has the #'s and my memory is not what it once was (though still pretty good). The pilot screening and its aftermath I do remember as pretty intense and something we all remembered the following fall when the show became a blockbuster. Those were interesting times... to say the least.

  4. Steven Cohn from Ex-Media Industry Newsletter, December 8, 2023 at 8:10 p.m.

    I know that Adam specifically celebrated Norman Lear's CBS series, but 'Sanford & Son' (NBC) and 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' (syndicated) were also huge breakthroughs. That 'Sanford & Son,' 'Good Times' and 'The Jefferson's' had predominantly African-American cast members were a further example of Lear being far ahead of his time. He was among the first to counter the late Newton Minow's claim that 'television is a vast wasteland.'
       Also, Lear's late ex-wife Frances Lear used her alimony to launch 'Lear's' magazine for older women in the 1980s. That was a breakthrough, too.

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