Originally created 05/06/04

A TV era ends

From commercial television's inception, starting with Milton Berle's show in the 1950s, there have been some hugely entertaining and popular "water cooler" programs airing each week.

They were called "water cooler" shows because people would gather around the water cooler the morning after they aired to chat about them. Berle was followed by the likes of Lucy and Desi, Jackie Gleason, M.A.S.H., All in the Family, Cheers and Seinfeld.

These long-running shows not only reflected our culture, they impacted it. They were part of Americana - a shared way of life. This month two more such shows are leaving the air, Friends tonight after a 10-year run and Frasier next Thursday after an 11-year run.

In addition to leaving a large hole in NBC's schedule, the absence of these shows will leave a large hole in the lives of their fans. It is not just a play on words to note that saying goodbye to Friends is like saying goodbye to old friends. The same is true of Frasier and his cast of popular supporting characters.

These may well be the last two "water cooler" TV series. Cable programming, 24-7 news reports, sports channels and niche channels such as History and Animal Planet are fracturing the viewing public. This makes it very unlikely for any TV series, no matter how good, to ever again generate a shared cultural experience that binds the nation together.

What made Friends and Frasier such hits? Excellent scripts, directing, acting and character development all came together at a particular time in the nation's history that struck a responsive chord with the viewing public.

We've all had high school or college friends - some very close buddies indeed - that we never thought we'd lose touch with. But we have. Life moves on. We move in new directions, new places, make new friends - and so do they. Old friendships aren't forgotten; they're just not nourished. Over time, they wither away.

But not with Friends. These people continued hanging out together, and being involved in each other's lives, well into adulthood. They never lost their affection for each other. Isn't that a dream many Americans could share - to keep old friendships alive; to speculate on what life would be like if we stayed involved and didn't lose touch?

Likewise, Frasier - a spinoff from Cheers where old friends gather and "everyone knows your name" - was a likable, interesting character surrounded by other likable, interesting characters: his brother and father and their friends. These simply were people who were fun to meet with once a week.

Friends and Frasier - all we can say is godspeed. You'll be missed. We aren't likely to see your kind again.

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