TWTV Commentary: There is no canon of TV shows — How about a Hall of Fame?

By Cory Barker

That headline suggests two questions, one of which I think is easy to answer and the other I find more challenging to tackle. Is there, really, a television canon? No. Not really. There are unspoken agreed-upon shows that almost all critics (and to a lesser extent, fans) put forth as the best the medium has to offer, and award shows “matter,” but that’s about it. 

The second question is the more compelling and complicated one for me. I go back and forth, but I really wish television had some organizing body, principle or construct that brought together the important and the less-important. Maybe that is a canon.

It is possible that for you, the answer to that headline’s question is easy. Perhaps you think that there shouldn’t be a canon of television programs, or perhaps you actually believe there should be something canonical-like out there. I imagine that this is a question most folks have avoided because they A.) deem it fairly unnecessary or B.) think it is impossible to achieve. In many ways, I would agree with both of those statements. 

The actual process of trying to create a television canon sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Logistics alone would make it a frustrating, extended endeavor. Who do we ask to do it? Who do we not? What are their qualifications? How do they decide? What can, and perhaps cannot, be considered? No one would ever be happy with any results, no matter how crowd-sourced this canon would be. And really, what does a canon accomplish? You know, aside from eschewing thousands and thousands of texts, pushing minority tastes (or worse, minority people) to the side and being predictably elitist. 

I see all that. I really do. But because I have been thinking so much about what kind of older television is out there, how in the heck I am going to watch it all and really so much more, this idea of a canon just keeps coming back to me. I’m all for the plurality of voices, and I think it is ridiculous for really anyone to personally judge another based on their tastes; however, I would also love to see the creation of some guide-posts for those viewers who want to dive into the past (or even the present) but aren’t exactly sure where or how to begin. 

In theory, those guide-posts already exist. If you’re embedded in the television criticism “scene” on the internet, you know where to go for recommendations. For you, those recommendations could come from specific critics’ reviews, or maybe they come from fellow commenters or fans on Twitter. Looking to pick up Fringe? Check out how Zack Handlen and Noel Murray haved reviewed it for The A.V. Club over the last four years. Just grabbed Deadwood: The Complete Series via Amazon Goldbox Deal? Take a gander at Alan Sepinwall’s past and in-progress reviews. Heck, just hash-tag search what you’re interested in and you’re likely to find some intriguing results. The swell of information in this little corner of the internet can serve interested but uneducated viewers pretty well in this regard. 

Award show results give us some indication about what mattered and when. Archived results from the Emmy, Golden Globe, TCA and Peabody events are (again) easily accessible. Of course, past record of Nielsen ratings similarly and theoretically tell prospective viewers/historians about what was “popular,” a muddled but probably useful starting point into audience behavior over time. If you were really antsy, I guess you could search through old Entertainment Weekly or TV Guide issues as well.

I don’t want to belittle those options because they are certainly valuable and useful. I’ve used all four as entry points into new viewing experiences. Nonetheless, I have this nagging dream there was something more, something better.

So I started thinking about coming up with a way to approach this desire (or what I would consider a need). I’m aware of the logistical nightmares, the elitist undertones and the probability of never actually being completed. Why couldn’t there be some process where a combination of critics, fans, industry types and maybe even the Nielsen ratings all come together to determine what/who mattered, and when? Why couldn’t each of these four factions get a percentage of a yearly vote to bring shows into a multi-tiered hierarchy that considers all sorts of television? 

In short, I guess I’m pitching you a Television Show Hall of Fame.*

*I’m aware of the Television Hall of Fame, a solid honor created by the Television Academy. That award only celebrates individuals for their professional contributions to the medium, not shows themselves. And it doesn’t even have a museum! As part of my theoretical pitch, I suggest that the Television Show Hall of Fame and the Television Hall of Fame merge into one, and that they have a museum. How hard is this?

Before you get carried away telling me how illogical this is, let me pitch you this glorious plan that I came up with over the weekend. 

Let’s start with the voting membership. Nielsen ratings can’t actually vote, you know, because they aren’t sentient beings. Hold on to them for a moment. Fans are supremely passionate but also fickle and at times, irrational, when it comes to voting for things that they love. Opening up the Television Show Hall of Fame to a fan vote online would lead to Community, Firefly and One Tree Hill all being first-ballot Hall of Famers. While that wouldn’t be any less embarrassing than baseball’s unwillingness to acknowledge Pete Rose, it’s still a bit troubling for our fledgling fictitious honor. Keep fans in your mind as well. 

With Nielsen ratings and fans temporarily out of the way, we’re left with “critics” and “industry types.” Both categories are vast and vague but for the purposes of this exercise, let me simplify them just a bit. If you’re a member of the Television Critics Association, you’re a voting member of the Television Show Hall of Fame. This can — and should be — broadened when more time can be devoted to such matters. As for “industry types,” we can start with members of the Academy. Again, this is a slightly flawed grouping, but it is the easiest to start with. To combat the Academy’s regular stupidity, we will allow the Peabody selection committee be part of this vaguely determined group.

What, and how, are they voting on/for? Meaning, what makes the Television Show Hall of Fame different from the yearly Emmy, TCA or Peabody results? First of all, the Television Show HoF will enact the “retirement rule” that is in-place in the major sport hall of fames. In baseball, football and basketball, a player has to be retired for five years before he/she can part of the HoF. That seems like too short of a period for the Television Show HoF. 10 years feels a bit too long as well, so let’s say seven years. I’m willing to negotiate this however. The retirement rule gets rid of the recency effect and also allows voters to consider a full career, however long that is (more on that in a second).

More importantly, the Television Show HoF will differ from award show results by creating a tiered, quasi-hierarchical system. You know how many sports writers — particularly younger ones — have called for the baseball HoF to open up a new wing dedicated to great players accused of steroid use, only to have the HoF voters continuously scoff? Won’t have that problem with the Television Show Hall of Fame. See, the most important thing about this construction is that it should consider all kinds of different television shows, from comedy to drama, from the obvious greats to cult favorites and from the terrible to the truly terrible. The primary problem with the creation of a canon is that it would weed out too much. This tiered system does the exact opposite. Just off the top of my head, here are some of the “wings” the Television Show Hall of Fame could have:

  • All-Time Greats — This is the best of the best. Presumably a place for your Cheers, your Hill Street Blues
  • Still Pretty Good — The next level down in perceived quality.  
  • One-Season Wonders — Self-explanatory. Quality shows that only lasted less than a season. 
  • Flawed, But Important — Perhaps akin to our steroid-using baseball players. Something went a bit wrong but the historical value is still there.
  • Individual categories for Excellence in Reality, Documentary, News, Sketch, etc. Perhaps even in more recognizable scripted categories like “cop show,” “workplace comedy,” etc. 
  • Straight-Up Terrible — Television’s failures are very compelling. They deserve a wing. 

Honestly, the possibilities are endless here and more importantly, should be flexible as things change over time. The wing/tier system would also create conversation between voters when certain shows come up for nomination. Is Lost an All-Time-Great, Still Pretty Good or even Flawed, But Important? Shows cannot be placed into multiple wings/tiers but it seems reasonable that the voting breakdown and any controversial opinions can be placed on the plaque in the museum, right?

Now, I mentioned earlier to remember Nielsen ratings and the fan vote, and here is where they come in. If voters have no real place for certain shows but those shows happened to be a top-20 Nielsen hit (on average, throughout a run), they can be placed in the special Nielsen Wing. There’s one show inducted into the Nielsen Wing each year. The fan vote is similar: One new inductee each year, through an online voting process that tracks IP addresses (keeping repeat votes to a minimum). That winner goes into the Fan Wing.

All categories could feature a somewhat straight-forward nomination and voting process. Voters (whether of the professional or fan ilk) are given a specific period to make nominations in specific categories. For the fans, that would be in their one category. For the “real” voters, this would include however many wings/tiers there were in any given year. Every voter gets to nominate one show in each of those categories. This would likely be a bit tricky, considering the massive slate of history. But hey, sports voters make it work.

To make it slightly more coherent and focused on history, I’d suggest that voting happen on something on a cycle. For example, let’s say that in year one, there are eight wings/tiers. Voters could be asked (read: forced) to pick only shows from a certain decade (the 1970s) for those eight slots. Or perhaps, four slots could be dedicated to one decade (1970s) and four to another (1980s). Or 2-2-2-2. In any event, putting some guidelines on what can be voted for when helps keep the process focused and hopefully avoids spaced out voting with 100 shows getting a single vote. Highlighting specific decades each year, at least at the beginning, would allow for some solid comparisons between voters and thematically centralize the proceedings. 

The glut of initial nominations could be parceled down to a top-10 of Final Nominees (in each wing/tier) of which that year’s winners are chosen from. So again, in my initial example, there would be a total of 80 final nominees, of which eight shows would be chosen to make into the Television Show Hall of Fame. Winners can be announced a few months later at the museum site, maybe there is even a red carpet event and a nice little ceremony. 

PROBLEM SOLVED. 

More seriously, I know that a Television Show Hall of Fame is a substantial long-shot. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Hollywood loves to celebrate itself, so it’s not as if folks would necessarily turn down the opportunity to do so even more — particularly if it means nostalgically highlighting the past. 

Furthermore, this HoF’s celebration of all kinds of television — good, bad, reality, scripted, sports, etc. — and connection to the past well-represents the medium’s deep historical backlog and hit-or-miss nature. As a bastion of history and a museum, the Television Show Hall of Fame wouldn’t be worried about always looking good. And hopefully, it would provide a more concrete (but still constantly changing) spot to go for information about where television has been over more than six decades.  

What do you think: How useful — or useless — is a canon? What about the proposed Television Show Hall of Fame?

Image courtesy of Disney, because, why not?

8 Responses to “TWTV Commentary: There is no canon of TV shows — How about a Hall of Fame?”

  1. arrabin56

    I’m all for this. The tiered idea (which I’ll only assume you stole from Bill Simmons) seems perfect. I would say you guys should start a web version of the hall, even if voting members need to be changed from your plan.

    Reply
    • Cory Barker

      Andrew:

      Oh heck, I didn’t even think about Simmons’ book. You’re right. And to your second point — I’d say stay tuned, perhaps.

      Reply
  2. Anthony Strand

    I love this idea. Just think of the arguments it would inspire! After all, my “All-Time Great” might be your “Flawed, but Important.” All in the Family, say, or Batman: The Animated Series.

    Reply
    • Cory Barker

      I agree. I’d love to see the voting process be televised, or worst of all, in podcast form.

      Reply
  3. Rob

    The Hall of Fame idea is interesting. In general I think there needs to be some kind of authoritative list of works considered the best. At the worst it establishes an old fuddy-duddy canon that people can rebel against. In film there’s the Sight and Sound poll, and more unofficially the top 1000 list on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They, which might make for good models. At the very least it would solve a lot of “What should I watch?” dilemmas.

    I agree that there are issues of excluding minority voices and entrenching critical opinions, as well as focusing too much attention on ranking quality instead of textual analysis, but I think the solution to these is not no canons but many canons.

    Reply
  4. Rob

    One more, more structural, thought: I like the idea of tiers, and think that actual sports hall of fames could use them. Why not have shows have to work their way up the tiers over time? Say a show gets voted into the first tier, and then 10 (or 7 or 5 or whatever) years later voters can see whether it still holds up and move it up above other shows. There would have to be a limit to the tiers eventually, but it could create some good discussion and allow for people to revisit shows that were judged as “just good” earlier.

    Reply
    • Cory Barker

      Definitely something to consider, and something that would certainly make the conversation better.

      Reply

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