Television shows that tackle difficult issues rarely attract wide audiences like they did in the 1970s.
For eight seasons, ABC has aired a comedy called "The Middle." It has never been a mega hit, but it has earned steady ratings. Critics like it, but it hasn't generated the think pieces and day-after recaps popular among highbrow cable shows.
Then Donald Trump became president.
"It was sort of funny how all of a sudden the phone started ringing," DeAnn Heline, the cocreator of ABC comedy "The Middle," told Business Insider of the newfound interest in the show by the media.
In today's television "The Middle" is an anomaly. It follows a lower-middle-class family that lives paycheck-to-paycheck and somehow makes it work. They live in Indiana, refer to themselves as "Hoosiers," and use humor to deflect some of the hard feelings about the tough times.
"People realized, 'Hey, wait, you guys are a Midwest show about blue-collar people,' and all of a sudden we felt like the show kind of had a new attention brought to it," Heline said.
While the show once flew under the media radar, it started getting press.
The Los Angeles Times published a feature about the show's "rare" emphasis on the anxiety of working-class Americans. And ABC's programming president referred to "The Middle" as an example of how well the network was featuring the working class in its comedies, while saying she'd like to do the same with its drama offerings.
A half-century ago, a show like "The Middle" might have driven the national conversation. In the 1970s, programs like "Maude," "The Jeffersons," and "All in the Family" featured diverse characters from across the country and attracted wide audiences. Before cable and the internet, there weren't many entertainment options.
"We had 30 and 40 million viewers, and if we were encouraging conversations about issues, we had that many more people encouraged to converse, to think about these issues," producer Norman Lear told Business Insider. In the 1970s, Lear produced those shows and many other network hits. "Right now, it's far more fractured and far fewer people are being influenced or consciences raised, because there's just so many places for drama and entertainment."
Lear's shows' depictions of people on the fringes, character types that rarely were the focus of TV shows then and now, had a huge influence on the national conversation.
Lear's groundbreaking "All in the Family" followed family man Archie Bunker whose conservative and bigoted views were artfully portrayed by actor Carroll O'Connor. The show dealt with topics ranging from homosexuality to women's rights and war. The next day, viewers would discuss the issues with their families, friends, and coworkers. Few, if any, shows today have that kind of effect.
"The Middle" tackles issues, too, but it's not often the subject at the office watercooler.
"Gone are the days where we all sat down and watched the same TV show, so that people would come away maybe feeling or thinking the same thing," Heline said.
Last year, a study from E-Score Programs — a monthly tracking survey that measures awareness, viewing, and perceptions of American television shows — revealed how tough it is to bring Americans together around TV now.
The study showed the top programs viewed by Republicans and Democrats. It found that Republicans leaned toward shows that are "family-friendly, funny, plot-driven, or have storylines that involve 'good versus evil.'"
Democrats like shows that are "sexy, edgy, emotionally involving, ethnically diverse, or have strong characters." Among the top 10 shows for each group, there were only three shows that crossed party lines: The CW's "Supernatural," CBS' "The Big Bang Theory," and AMC's "The Walking Dead."
There's also a big divide along racial lines. USA Today analyzed Nielsen ratings and found that among the lists of the five-most-watched programs for whites, blacks, Asians, and Latino viewers, not one TV program appeared in all lists. Only two shows, AMC 's "The Walking Dead" and NBC's "This Is Us," were able to break the top five for three of those groups.
There are simply more choices for more niche groups. Hundreds of channels and several digital networks have amounted to 454 scripted TV shows in 2016, a record and another reason why TV's ability to unite Americans has waned.
"We're talking about back then only four networks, you know, the three major networks and then Fox came along," Lear said of his shows' heyday compared. "And now we're talking about dozens upon dozens of streaming [platforms] and networks ... you've got now a couple of hundred opportunities."
Neve Campbell, one of the actresses on Netflix's political drama "House of Cards," which stars Kevin Spacey as a man who lied, stole, and killed to become president, feels that it's not up to TV to heal a divided nation.
"In the end, it’s fiction. It’s storytelling," Campbell told Business Insider. "If you want things to change in a divided country, you’ll probably have to turn off the TV and pick up the phone and call someone on the other team and try to have a conversation."
But Justin Spitzer — the creator of NBC comedy "Superstore," which follows a diverse group of employees at a big-box retail store — has a different take.
"In a utopia where everybody is looking for a way to learn about each other and bond, then that would be great. I just think realistically that doesn’t happen," Spitzer said.
"What people want to do is come home from work after a long day, turn on the TV, relax, and laugh a little," he said. "So in that respect, I think TV probably is one of the most effective tools. You're getting a very specific type of person who is learning, who probably is already fairly open in their perspectives about things and saying, 'I want to go out and learn about a community that I don’t know.'"
Lear believes that animated shows, such as Comedy Central's "South Park" and Fox's "Family Guy," are doing a good job of attracting people from different backgrounds and getting them to discuss issues.
Meanwhile, Heline of "The Middle" is positive that TV is making strides to portray different kinds of lives and making people more aware of issues affecting others from different backgrounds.
"I do believe that the networks are doing better at portraying different points of view," she said. "It’s not like every show now should be about blue-collar people in the Midwest like my show. The next show should be something else, you know, so I think they’re doing a better job of it for sure."