August 31, 2022

Fame vs. Greatness: In Television, Does It Matter?

by David Hofstede

His name was Edwin Arlington Robinson. And I’d wager if you asked the next
thousand people you meet who he was, not one could tell you.

But 100 years ago, when Americans read more books and universities still
espoused a liberal arts education (now supplanted by mere liberal indoctrination), it wouldn’t take long to find someone familiar with Robinson’s work. He won three Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry and was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize in literature, achievements that placed him at the pinnacle of his artistic endeavor.

His poems are not widely known today, and his name even less so. Teenagers might have read “Richard Cory,” in high school, as its macabre final verse is just the thing to rouse bored students from their stupor in English Lit. But if they read it they certainly long forgot who wrote it.

Fame can be fleeting (or even non-existent) for poets. How many Americans could identify the country’s current poet laureate? But is television fame any less so?

One would think a mass visual medium that beams pictures of attractive, talented people into millions of homes would confer some level of enduring recognition. But once their shows disappear, or get lost amidst a rerun universe of hundreds of channels and streaming options, once exalted personages are often reduced back to mere faces in the crowd.

A friend who teaches college told me that during COVID he taught a business class online in which his students appeared on the computer screen in rows of boxes. “It looks like The Brady Bunch,” he said, and was greeted with blank stares from the 20-somethings in the class.

It says something that a show with that high of a pop culture profile is now on the verge of being unknown. Is that important? Should it matter? Or did The Brady Bunch just connect with the children who grew up at the same time as the Brady kids, only to pass into obsolescence when they do?

These days television fame is more transitory than ever. Survivor castaways and RuPaul’s Drag Race hopefuls achieve it for a time without even winning their respective contests. How many of this month’s most buzzed about streaming shows will anyone remember in, say, five years? At least syndication kept the Bradys relevant for at least two generations.

Some facets of art and culture do last. And perhaps here is where we need to draw a distinction between fame and greatness, as one does not always accompany the other. Poets can achieve greatness without fame. Television personalities can achieve fame without greatness.

The works of great authors, painters, sculptors, composers, and playwrights may be venerated for hundreds of years. Movies are the closest medium to television, and even here cinephiles recognize names like Chaplin and Bogart, Hitchcock and Capra. Their odds for continued recognition now rest on whether future generations designate them for cancellation for being too white, male, straight, and/or religious. Will the same be said for those that achieved not just fame but greatness in television? Rod Serling? Lucille Ball? Sid Caesar? Mary Tyler Moore? Ernie Kovacs? Will their work endure? If I had to guess I would say no, because television then and now is largely perceived as a disposable medium— a pleasant distraction, but not an art form comparable to a great book or a classic film. That’s disheartening to those of us who love it, but I see no basis on which to believe otherwise.

This isn’t the first time I’ve wondered about this – one of the first pieces I wrote for my Comfort TV blog was titled, “Will Your Granddaughter Think Keith Partridge is Groovy?” That was ten years ago. Why is this still on my mind?

I struggled to find the right words until I read a column by Los Angeles writer and radio personality Doug McIntyre. He had just returned from a Hollywood Bowl tribute to Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, in which current pop star Billie Eilish sang the praises of these musical icons, before singing some of their greatest hits.

"Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra were once enormous stars. Today, young people are likely to ask, 'Peggy who?', or 'That old mafia guy?' When the things we loved all our lives draw a blank from our kids, it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss," McIntyre wrote. But if their legacies live on through subsequent generations of singers, perhaps their names will never be forgotten. "We want our world to be remembered," he admits, "even if we are not."

Maybe that’s it. Maybe this is really more about us than the entertainers whose prominence we want so ardently to preserve. I’m still not confident it will happen with television the way it might in music. I’ll try to be optimistic, but these times were not made for optimists. With all the advances of western civilization under constant assault, what chance do a few old TV shows have to survive?

The best we can hope for now, I think, is for even the greatest of these shows to be mostly forgotten, but hopefully still accessible. Like the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, you might have to dig through a lot of other stuff to find them. Hopefully, those that do will decide they were worth the effort. TV  

David Hofstede is the founder of the Comfort TV blog, as well as the author of several books on television history. His most recent book is When Television Brought Us Together: Celebrating the Shows and the Values That Shaped America's First Television Viewing Generations


  1. "now supplanted by mere liberal indoctrination"

    As a college professor of history for 20+ years, I not only take offense at your insinuation, I also note that your worldview is formed solely by Fox News, Newsmax, OANN, and the former president. Conservative voices have always been heard and have had a place in the college classroom. What angers you and others like you is that for the first time there is pushback against your narrow minded views.

    1. This piece was about classic television - but if that one off-hand comment bothered you enough to respond in that fashion it apparently touched a nerve. If conservative voices are heard in your classroom, I'm delighted to hear it. But to emphatically state that this is the case in all college classrooms is as presumptuous as your assertion of where and how my worldview is formed. The universities have been the breeding ground for critical race theory, third-wave feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-modernism and probably a host of other “-isms” that I’m sure you believe I'm not sophisticated enough to understand. None of them have produced a healthier, happier society. I'll take Jordan Peterson's word over yours when he states that universities now do more harm than good, since they've become factories of ideology that mass-produce victims searching everywhere for oppressors to punish. And when it's time to leave the classroom for the athletic field they proudly allow men to compete in women's sporting events - one of those ideas that is so absurd that, as Orwell once said, only an intellectual could believe them. The ratio of liberal to conservative college professors is something like 17:1 now. You may like those odds, but if I were one of those narrow-minded folks who still thinks wisdom begins with the fear of God, the last thing I'd want to do is pay $50K a year to send my son or daughter to a place where that type of wisdom. no longer exists.

  2. Thanks for this, David. I'm proud to have been the outlet for it--it's elegant, eloquent, and sums up what so many of us believe about classic television and why it's important to maintain it for future generations. Well done!

    1. Of course I'm now going to have to do a post about Heil Honey I'm Home to illustrate why cancelling is great. I see what you did there. 😵‍💫

    2. Thank you for the invitation, MItchell. As you can see I stir up trouble wherever I go. :)


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!