Suburban TV shows have never dominated TV ratings

One of my studies, From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007, recently came out in print in Sociological Focus. Here is the abstract for the piece and I’ll add a few thoughts afterward:

The majority of Americans now live in suburbs, and a number of scholars have highlighted how various pop culture objects, from novels to television shows, have either reflected or encouraged suburban life. An analysis of the top 30 Nielsen-rated television shows from 1950 to 2007, a period of both rapid suburbanization and television growth, reveals that suburban TV shows did not dominate popular television. There is slightly more evidence for reflection theory with more sets of seasons with higher numbers of suburban-set shows following decades of rapid suburban growth. Additionally, the number of suburban-set shows was also influenced by the popularity of the genres of sitcoms and dramas. These findings suggest a need for further research into why relatively few popular shows were set in suburbs compared to big cities and how viewing settings on television directly influences suburban aspirations and behavior.

In sum: even if suburban set television shows have been a staple of fall lineups and reruns since the 1950s, they often do not rank among the most highly rated and there is limited evidence that they inspired suburban growth.

All that said, I think there is a lot to be done with connecting television depictions of locations with behaviors and attitudes. While Americans still watch multiple hours of TV a day on average, it is not fully clear how all that viewing affects people. What it does mean if the suburbs tend to be depicted in certain ways – either family sitcoms or the underside of happy-looking suburban life – and cities are depicted in other ways – the main setting for crime or police shows, which are heavily represented in top rated shows going back decades? On the whole, few shows are able or willing to deeply delve into a location and its people – such as the celebrated The Wire – even though they have the hours to do so. Does the generic big city or suburb on TV change viewers?

Jake Paul, celebrities, and a behavior code for McMansion dwellers

Jake Paul is angering his neighbors while living in a Los Angeles McMansion and this raises a number of questions about with whom the term McMansion is used:

The 20-year-old, who first became internet-famous on the now defunct app Vine, has been living with friends and “coworkers” in a Beverly Grove rental near Melrose and Kilkea. Mic reports they use the house as ground zero for loud parties and for some of his “stunts,” including lighting a pile of furniture on fire in the house’s drained pool and popping wheelies on a dirt bike on the street…

Paul has been living in the McMansion-style contemporary—where rent is $17,459 per month, MLS records show—since June 2016. (Paul is reportedly pulling in “millions” of dollars and is an actor on the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark, so he can afford it.)

The house is described on the MLS as having five bedrooms and five bathrooms. It was recently a Spanish-style duplex, but building permits show a new house was built on the site in 2016.

Beverly Grove has long fought against McMansionization of the neighborhood. Now many neighbors may be wondering, if they didn’t build it, would Jake Paul have come?

Three related questions:

  1. Can people who live in McMansions criticize others for ruining the neighborhood? Or, are the people complaining about Paul also the same ones opposed to McMansions? As the last sentence quoted above suggests, once you start letting in McMansions, it is hard to stop them.
  2. Is there a behavior code for McMansion owners? If your neighbors already don’t like your house, which may often be the case with teardowns, perhaps it would be best to lay low and try not to ruffle many feathers. On one hand, there is a stereotype that McMansion owners are the types who drive in and out of their cars without seeing anyone else yet there are often presumed to be people who have to prove something (and this comes out through their house and maybe through other behavior).
  3. Are McMansions more acceptable for celebrities and wealthy people? When people generally use the term, they are referring to more middle or upper-middle class who are trying to show off their wealth. But, celebrities typically have more resources than the average person. At the same time, the truly wealthy celebrities live in mansions that are far beyond typical McMansions.

To sum up, I would argue that celebrities who don’t antagonize their neighbors are rarely accused of living in McMansions.

Wrong direction on Lake Shore Drive in “When Harry Met Sally”

I noticed this again recently: the movie When Harry Met Sally gets an important feature of Chicago wrong early on. As described by IMDB:

When Harry and Sally drive from the University of Chicago to New York, they should drive on the Lake Shore Drive heading to the south (to the direction of Gary), not to the north (to the direction of downtown). So they should not be on the Lake Shore drive on the north of downtown.

It is not clear how this mistake was made but it could be an easy one to make for multiple reasons:

  1. The University of Chicago is an island onto itself on the south side of Chicago. It takes several miles and multiple social worlds to get to the better known, wealthier, whiter part of Chicago (the Loop and North Side). Perhaps this is commentary about where University of Chicago students end up?
  2. Would the view along the southern portion of Lake Shore Drive be recognizable to many people? The views of Chicago are very different at these different ends. The southern approach to the city provides a more industrial, working-class view while the north side emphasizes high-rises and waterfront amenities.
  3. Perhaps this could further fuel Chicago’s sense of inferiority compared to New York City: “they don’t even know the north and south sides of our great city!”

The Bachelorette may be the best use for a McMansion

With the criticism that McMansions receive, are there any contexts where they are appropriate? I submit that The Bachelor/Bachelorette shows are one such setting:

  1. The home needs to be big. The latest version of The Bachelorette started with 31 suitors. Not only is space needed to house all of them, a McMansion has big spaces like the living room or pool area where lots of people can congregate.
  2. The home needs to be garish and over the top.  For a show that knows it can’t take itself too seriously (are the contestants here for “the right reasons”?), the loud house works just fine.
  3. Having a big, well-appointed house fits with the show’s fantasy theme. Everyone knows that most relationships don’t start and/or occur in huge houses, on adventurous and/or fancy dates, and on trips around the globe. But, watching everyone interact in a 1950s ranch home simply wouldn’t fit with the dream-like aspect of the show. (Indeed, it is an interesting contrast to juxtapose the parts of the show that take place in the McMansion versus the home visit weeks where the families of contestants live in more normal settings.) Big features that are clearly visible on TV? Large pool and hot tub? Vaguely Mediterranean style? Check, check, and check.

For the average American household – less than five people – the home used on the show doesn’t make much sense. But, as a key setting for a fanciful TV dating show, it may be perfect.

When a suburb is made out to be racist on a fictional TV show

Many Americans are protective about their own community so it is little surprise that leaders in Crown Point, Indiana were not happy with their portrayal on TV as a place where there is racial antagonism:

Crown Point Mayor David Uran says the city and its residents deserve an apology after the city was depicted as a racist community on the May 10 episode of the NBC drama “Chicago P.D.”‘…

He said the way show crossed a fictional storyline with a factual place gave the impression the incident is something that occurred or could occur in the city…

As mayor, he said he is always trying to promote inclusiveness in the community to attract people to live, work and play in Crown Point. He said he has reached out to NBC through different emails and is demanding an apology for the city and its residents.

In the episode, “Army of One,” a black man is killed after he was released from jail for a rape that occurred while he was a star high school athlete dating a white girl.

I wonder at the strategy here: would making this case on the website of the Chicago Tribune call more attention to the portrayal? Do people watching TV shows necessarily link the actions on the screen to the specific places named, particularly if the place is relatively unknown (Crown Point is at the edge of the Chicago metropolitan region)? (Police shows do this all the time and it likely influences how many viewers see big cities as cesspools of crime.) Perhaps the mayor is simply standing up for concerned members (and potential voters) of the community.

At the same time, northwest Indiana communities may have struggled with race. How do many of the white communities and residents view Gary? Or, what about the KKK: here is an overview of historical documents from the Crown Point KKK from 1913-1932, the Crown Point activity of the KKK is noted in the academic history Citizen Klansman: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928, and there were rumblings of KKK activity in Lake County in 2005. Additionally, a research project in Northwest Indiana suggests a number of bias incidents between 1990 and 2014. And these struggles wouldn’t be unique to northwest Indiana; this is part of the American story in many communities and suburbs.

Arms race among new luxury apartments includes live-in musicians

If you have the resources, you have some options in shopping for a nice new apartment including a building musician:

Amenities for high rise buildings are generally culled from a well-honed list of known popular offerings—a lounge, gym, a pool, an outdoor deck, and grilling stations wouldn’t really lead anyone to blink an eyelash. Being LEED certified is often expected.

At the 34-story, 298-unit Exhibit on Superior, amenities for the studio, convertible, and 1 to 3-bedroom units include those, as well as keyless entry with smartphone integration, stainless steel appliances, in-unit washer and dryer and more. Quite nice—but the downtown luxury apartment market glut has led to an arms race to attract new residents and keep rents from being slashed.

And even though the price point is comparably lower (and the floor plans are comparably smaller) than other neighborhood offerings to attract a younger demographic, developer Magellan Development Group and MAC Management wanted to bring some artistry and magic to their building (and to their other properties, if this catches on). Here’s the idea.

A contest is open for the best acoustic guitarist and vocalist to live and play for one year at Exhibit on Superior. The winning musician gets free rent at an unfurnished studio for a year, the title of Musician in Residence, and the chance to hone their skills while playing against any number of cool nooks and spaces in the bKL Architecture-designed building. The residents get in-house live entertainment and bragging rights to live in a building with the first so-called Exhibit A-Lister.

My first thought was that sounds like the arms race among colleges to provide amenities for prospective students ranging from excellent food, state of the art gyms, and private and luxurious dorms. Then it hit me: these luxury apartment buildings may be going after that same demographic: college graduates who want the excitement of the city. If we could narrow it even more, perhaps they are employed in a creative industry or field.

After thinking this through a bit, it is clever to pair residential real estate with music. We might expect something like this in commercial spaces or privately-owned property that is trying to operate like public space (perhaps a park like area outside a major office building). But, this continues the trend of some of the other “weapons” in this residential arms race: providing building amenities that encourage sociability while simultaneously offering well-appointed private units. Let’s hope all the residents like the acoustic guitar scene…

From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007

In my study of suburbs, I have run across numerous scholarly sources that discuss the role television played in promoting American suburbs. A number of them suggest that the idealized image of nuclear family life taking place in the single-family home presented in shows in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged Americans to make the move to the suburbs. My recently published paper (published online in Sociological Focus, forthcoming in print) aimed to put these arguments in context: just how common were these suburban television shows? Did such shows reflect the millions of Americans who already moved to the suburbs or create demand for the suburban life?

The short answer: suburban-set TV shows were relatively rare among the top 30 ranked shows from 1950 to 2007. There certainly were some classic shows – ranging from Father Knows Best to Home Improvement – but many of the top 30 shows were set in cities. Here is my concluding paragraph:

Even though the United States has become a suburban nation, its most popular television shows from the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century did not match this demographic shift. The suburban sitcom or drama, satirized in films like Pleasantville or featuring anti-heroes in more recent television shows like The Sopranos, was a relatively rare figure in the top 30 television shows. The suburban show is a recognizable form with its emphasis on family life in a single-family home without much social strife, and new fall lineups continue to include variations on the genre, yet many popular American shows were set elsewhere. Thus, these longitudinal findings suggest popular television shows had a limited influence on pulling and/or pushing Americans to the suburbs. America may be suburban but its most popular television shows are not.

There is much more to explore here. The scholarship on the topic thus far has focused on particular key examples of suburban-set shows but has rarely considered the full scope of television or how exactly watching a show set in the suburbs would change people’s behaviors.