The Evolution of Content

Words by
Jackie Baucom

JUL 05, 2024

The Evolution of Content

Growing up, my siblings and I looked forward to Saturday mornings all week. We’d wake up and turn on the TV to catch Disney’s One Saturday Morning, while my parents slept in. When we’d finished the weekly block of Doug, Pepper Ann, and Recess, we’d then change the channel to watch Bob Ross paint.

Commercials were part of the experience, with us singing along to every jingle and “NOW That’s What I Call Music!” CD commercial.

CD Rom on a pop art background

Entertainment has come a long way over the decades, reflecting and shaping societal norms, values, and technological advancements. My kids are shocked anytime they have to sit through a commercial, and they’ll never know the angst of frenzied bathroom or snack breaks during commercials. If you missed a part, there was no way to ever know what happened! 

What we watched back then was mostly intentional. We relied on the channel’s schedule and we couldn’t change it to better fit our plans. Unless you had cable TV, the choices for shows were pretty slim at certain times. After scanning the channels in hopes of finding something we actually wanted to watch, we’d often resort to turning off the TV and going outside to play.

Things sure have changed. But how much, really? Let’s take a look at how popular content has evolved through the years.

The first version of a television, called the “image dissector,” was first introduced in 1927. By the 1930s broadcast stations began producing television programming. Up to this point, radio was the main medium for entertainment in households, but by the 1950s, television had replaced it.

1950s – 1960s

Early television and films were heavily regulated, with strict guidelines on depictions of violence, sex, language, and drug use. 

The 1950s and 1960s, for instance, adhered to conservative standards, portraying nuclear families, and storylines with a moral lesson. This era followed World War II, and the media really pushed the idea of women in traditional roles of wives and mothers.

Movies released during this time include Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, both featuring a young, docile, beautiful girl, who needs to be saved by a “prince charming” they barely know or talk to.

1970s – 1980s

As society underwent cultural transformations, so did the media. 

In the 1970s, television shows like All in the Family began addressing serious social issues such as racism and sexism, which was a departure from more neutral content of previous decades. This show, along with others like M*A*S*H, used comedy and drama to comment on social issues, including the Vietnam War and the counterculture movement.

The 1980s continued this trend with the birth of cable television and deregulation, which allowed for more diverse and less restricted content. Cable TV meant more channels — from sports to movies to news content.

It paved the way for a more personalized viewing experience, and set the stage for the future of on-demand and digital streaming services.

Popular shows of this time included Dallas and Dynasty, both of which depicted the lives of wealthy individuals, reflecting society’s growing fascination with financial success and personal wealth. 

Additionally, the era saw the emergence of more explicit content in music and films, with heavy metal and rap music addressing themes of sex, drugs, and violence. Popular films like Wall Street, and action movies featuring characters like Rambo also highlighted themes of power and violence.

1990s – 2000s

The 1990s saw significant changes in media and technology that paved the way for more daring and unrestricted storytelling. Widespread internet access and email in the early 1990s revolutionized communication and information sharing. This technological shift likely contributed to a more open and connected society, which in turn influenced media content.

Censorship became more relaxed during this time. Cable TV really thrived. Since these channels were not subject to the same content restrictions as network television (channels that are available free to everyone, such as ABC, NBC, and FOX), they were able to push boundaries with adult-oriented programming with shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City.

M rating on pop art background

As a result, network TV began to loosen their content restrictions with shows like Friends, Ally McBeal, and Beverly Hills: 90210 in order to better compete with cable.

The 2000s saw a boom in reality television, which often included controversial and sensational content. Shows like Survivor and The Bachelor pushed the envelope in terms of what was acceptable on network TV, often featuring intense drama and occasionally explicit content. 

Films followed the trend, with more graphic and realistic portrayals of violence, sex, and drug use. Movies like American Psycho and Borat were notable for their explicit content and controversial themes. One study found, “offensive language, sexual content, and violence has increased by 173%” in TV and movies since 2002.

2010s – 2020s

The 2010s saw the mainstream emergence of streaming services, fundamentally altering how audiences consume television and film. Netflix, which transitioned from a DVD rental service to a streaming giant, led this revolution. The platform’s release of House of Cards in 2013 marked a significant shift, as it was one of the first major series to be released all at once, promoting the binge-watching culture.

Other streaming services like Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and later Disney+ and Apple TV+ followed suit, offering a plethora of original content that often pushed the boundaries of traditional television.

Shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones became cultural phenomena, after being added to streaming platforms, benefiting from the binge-watching trend and the global reach of these services.

video logo on screen on pop art background

The 2020s have continued the trend of streaming dominance, with platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and HBO Max becoming primary sources of entertainment for many households. 

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this shift, as lockdowns and social distancing measures led to increased demand for home entertainment. This period also saw the rise of niche streaming services catering to specific genres and audiences, further diversifying the content landscape.

Shows like The Mandalorian on Disney+ and The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix exemplify the high-quality, diverse storytelling that has become a hallmark of the streaming era. The Mandalorian brought the Star Wars universe to the small screen with cinematic production values, while The Queen’s Gambit captivated audiences with its compelling narrative and strong performances.

The Rise of Social Media and YouTube

The rise of internet and digital technology revolutionized content creation and consumption. Social media platforms and YouTube have emerged as dominant content platforms, fundamentally changing how content is produced, distributed, and consumed.

YouTube: Launched in 2005, YouTube changed content creation by allowing anyone with a camera and an internet connection to become a content creator. This platform has given rise to a new genre of content, including vlogs, tutorials, unboxing videos, and independent short films. YouTube stars like PewDiePie, and MrBeast have amassed millions of followers, creating content that often blends entertainment with personal expression.

Social Media: Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, X, and TikTok have further diversified content types. These platforms prioritize user-generated content, enabling real-time interaction and instant feedback. Viral challenges, memes, and short-form videos have become cultural phenomena, often influencing mainstream media trends.

Traditional Media vs. Digital Platforms

The content trends on social media and YouTube have both converged with and diverged from traditional media trends. While traditional media, such as television and movies, continue to explore complex narratives with high production values, digital platforms emphasize immediacy, relatability, and interactivity.

There are notable overlaps between the content trends on digital platforms and traditional media. For instance, popular YouTube channels often produce high-quality, episodic content similar to TV shows.

youtube on cell phone illustration

Additionally, themes of violence, sex, and drug use are prevalent in both spheres, though often presented differently. Traditional media still adheres to certain broadcast standards and regulations, while digital platforms operate with more leniency, allowing for a broader range of expressions.

On the other hand, social media content is characterized by its short-form nature and the ability to rapidly respond to trends. Platforms like TikTok thrive on quick, engaging videos that can go viral within hours, often driven by user participation and creativity. The content is generally less polished but more authentic and relatable, resonating particularly with younger audiences.

The Impact of These Shifts 

Today, children are exposed to an unprecedented amount of daily content. From educational videos and games to social media and streaming platforms, kids spend hours ingesting various types of media. A report by Common Sense Media found that teens average 8 ½ hours on screens per day (that’s more than a full time job!), and tweens spend 5 ½ hours. While some of this content can be educational and enriching, a lot of it poses significant risks.

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As content continues to evolve, understanding these shifts is crucial for navigating the complexities of modern media consumption and its impact on society — especially as we raise children and try to protect them from exposure to unregulated content. Social media and YouTube have not only become dominant content platforms but have also introduced new trends and forms of engagement that both mirror and challenge traditional media. 

The necessity of safeguarding children arises from the diverse nature of available content. While educational programs and interactive learning tools can foster cognitive development and creativity, other types of media can be detrimental.

Violent video games, inappropriate movies, and unrestricted access to social media can expose children to graphic imagery, unrealistic body standards, and dangerous ideas. Such exposure can lead to behavior issues, anxiety, and distorted perceptions of reality. As a result, it becomes essential for parents to distinguish between beneficial and harmful content and implement strategies to manage their children’s media consumption effectively.

How Parents Can Help

One of the fundamental steps parents can take is regulating screen time. Establishing clear rules about when and how long children can use devices helps prevent overexposure and encourages a balanced lifestyle.

Another idea is to use devices that do not provide easy access to certain platforms. Not only will this help with screen time usage, it will also limit their exposure to inappropriate content. In addition to kid-safe devices, services exist that allow users to filter out explicit content from movies and TV shows, making it easier to provide a viewing experience tailored to your own family.

There are plenty of options out there to customize the content our children see, but ultimately engaging in open discussions about the content they consume is the most crucial thing we can do. 

parent hugging child illustration

Teaching kids to critically evaluate media and understand the difference between reality and fiction fosters media literacy and empowers them to make informed choices. Protecting children requires a proactive and informed approach from parents. That can feel like a lot. But given the influence content can have on shaping your child’s worldview, mental health, and overall well being, it’s worth the effort.

evolution of content

After reading this and seeing how far we’ve come with content, what do you think? Are you happy with our current censorship and ratings, or do you think it’s too relaxed? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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