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Television shows aired in the United States during the broadcast network pre-cable area often had huge audiences, by today's standards. Throughout the 1970's, one ratings point in prime time often was the equivalent of one million households.

Since the top-rated prime time shows had ratings of 25 to 30, that means that many shows routinely were viewed by 30 million people a week. And most shows produced many more episodes per season than are currently produced.

In the modern era, cable and streaming services have fragmented the audience to such a degree that shows are supported by much smaller audiences, often in the middle single digits in millions of viewers. Although our society is wealthier now and disposable income directed to entertainment has grown, I'm trying to understand the economics here. If the audience every week for Here's Lucy or Ironside was nearly as large as the audience the Super Bowl or World Series get today, wouldn't the advertising dollars generated by those shows be similar, at least in real dollars? Why would a show like Game of Thrones today have budgets of $6 million to $10 million an episode, making shows made in the 1970's look like they were shot in someone's basement by comparison?

Were the networks simply realizing profits that no one hopes to equal today? Was TV just a license to print money, by shooting cheap shows with comically bad production values and getting 30 million viewers anyway? Or were these huge audiences much less valuable (somehow) than today's tiny audiences, and thus the production values of the time were the most the industry could afford?

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  • Define profit. Except for cast and crew pay, the expense of producing programming can be drastically reduced. That is why there are a lot more outlets for production. If I can produce content with less than $1 million and a ton of time and sweat equity, a mere $10 million in gross income from royalties, rights, and advertising would be a huge profit ROI-wise. And now, domestic and global distribution is now considerably easier and comparably cheaper than it was at that time. – Dean F. Oct 4 '20 at 19:27
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I can think of a couple of reasons…

Audience expectation.
If the new Dr Who looked like the old Dr Who, complete with wobbly cardboard sets & rubber monsters, no-one would watch it.

Improved video quality.
I was once in the states in the 90s & saw just how truly poor the picture on a 50" NTSC TV was.
We didn't have [or I had never been in the same room as] very large PAL TVs in those days, so I'd never seen anything like it before. The picture quality was so bad you really didn't need better production values. No-one would have been able to see the difference.

Add those together and you have audience-driven quality standards. The TV makers have to produce high quality to pull even a smaller slice of the pie.

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  • "If the new Dr Who looked like the old Dr Who, complete with wobbly cardboard sets & rubber monsters, no-one would watch it." Not no one. – Acccumulation Oct 5 '20 at 7:06
  • @Acccumulation - ermm… whut? I'm not sure what point you're trying to make here. "Not no one" is not a sentence. – Tetsujin Oct 5 '20 at 18:40
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Critical mass and technology are the prime drivers. I can produce with my iPhone better production quality than what would have been possible with the most expensive production equipment at that time. So, the standard for production can not be compared.

Almost all of the programming done in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s was in Standard Definition. That is because that was the vast majority of the equipment available for both production and consumption (viewing). A historically higher median household income in the US meant more SD equipment around and in the hands of the public. That high critical mass of equipment meant a switch over to newer technology would be slower.

This same equipment glut was also the prime driver for analog broadcasting staying around longer than was necessary. When the average American household may have an analog Tv in every room, getting the public to make the financial commitment to a different technology is synonymous to turning a large cruise ship.

Combine that with the fact that high definition TVs were not prevalent at that time. Standard definition CRT TVs outnumbered flat panel plasma and LED TVs by a large margin. Even though the viewing market may have been larger per program, many of those watching did not have the equipment to be able to appreciate HDTV. Prior to the year 2000, most homes had multiple TVs. But, they were all SDTVs and projectors. It was not until after the turn of the century that the market for HD broadcast Tv hit a critical mass with the increase in the number of households with HD equipment. Even today, there are cable Tv providers who offer SD service as a cheaper alternative. But, we have almost reached a point where that market will not have the critical mass to support it.

The exact same thing is happening with UHD or 4K Tv now. With multiple HD LED TVs, monitors, projectors, streaming devices, etc. in my household, I have no need nor incentive to seek out 4K programming. And, there is not enough 4K only programming out to incentivize me to buy new, more modern equipment. Critical mass has to be reached on either the production or the consumer side to move the needle.

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  • Plenty of shows in the 1970s/1980s/1990s were filmed on actual film and could potentially be given a good HD transfer. The problem is with the editing: so for these transfers they'd likely need to go back tot he original film, digitize it and then reproduce the edits as they exist in the original show. Which is what happened with ST:TNG for instance. – BCdotWEB Oct 5 '20 at 7:40
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I think there were a couple of factors. One is that technology has gotten a lot better and cheaper. Cameras, sound equipment, special effects have all gotten a lot more sophisticated and much cheaper since the 1970s.

The other factor is that the economy really sucked in the 1970s. TV networks were controlled by a monopoly. Everything (food, fuel, clothes, furniture, you name it) was much more expensive than it is now. When I was kid in the 1970s my mother made the clothes me and my sister wore, and she was married to clinical psychologist. How many doctors do you know now that have kids wearing homemade clothes (made from patterns from Sears)?

Believe it or not there were price controls. The government reaction to national finance problems was to create a price control board run by... wait for it ... Dick Cheney. That's right, Dick Freakin Cheney was deciding things like how much pork chops should cost. It was a freakin disaster. There were shortages of all kinds of things. My parents had wait in line to buy gas for the car. There was a lot of stuff that was just unavailable.

The bottom line is that everybody was basically poor, and that included the people making TV shows. In Land of the Lost, the producers only had 3 rubber sleestack suits, so if the script called for more than 3 sleestack, then 1 or 2 would exit one side of the set and then re-enter from the other side to make it look like there was more than 3. Nobody had any money. It was kind of like the pandemic "shutdown", except it affected the whole economy, not just retail businesses.

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  • "Everything (food, fuel, clothes, furniture, you name it) was much more expensive than it is now." That is nonsensical. A price is how much of one thing you have to pay to get something else. It's impossible for all prices to be higher. It's possible for all nominal prices to be higher, but that's clearly not the case. Things in the past had lower nominal prices (inflation). – Acccumulation Oct 5 '20 at 7:06
  • @Acccumulation I am talking about relative prices. In other how much things cost in comparison to how much people were earning. – Tyler Durden Oct 5 '20 at 10:26

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