Defining a Television Obscurity

Back in 2003 when I was trying to come up with a name for this website, I was searching for a phrase that would be easy to remember while also reflecting the subject matter I wanted to cover. Clearly, the name would have to include the word “television” but otherwise my options were limited only by my imagination and the English language. I wanted the name to be short, combining “television” with just one other word.

So, I considered “television minutia” in a nod to Star Trek Minutiae but it didn’t quite fit. I also tried fitting “forgotten” with “television” to make “forgotten television” before eventually settling on “television obscurities.” But what exactly is a television obscurity? I’ve never written out a set of criteria that a television show must meet in order to be considered an obscurity. Merriam-Webster defines “obscure” in a variety of ways:

1: shrouded in or hidden by darkness; not clearly seen or easily distinguished
2: not readily understood or clearly expressed
3: relatively unknown; not prominent or famous

Those are all sufficiently vague as to include all but the most famous of television shows. Fame, however, is very relative term and, as the saying goes, fleeting. And when applied to the television industry, with its emphasis on what’s being currently broadcast, fame is even more time sensitive. Certainly, no one will ever consider I Love Lucy, Star Trek or All in the Family obscure. At least, no one should. But there are a finite number of “famous” shows that transcend time.

Many of the anthology shows from the “golden age” of television were certainly famous when they were on the air and in the years following when memories were fresh. As the decades passed, however, and anthologies disappeared from the networks, shows like Kraft Television Theatre, Suspense, Studio One and Playhouse 90 began to fade from the public consciousness. And those are only some of the bigger names in the anthology circle (others include General Electric Theater, Philco Television Playhouse and Death Valley Days).

I’m generalizing here with anthologies but the point I’m trying to make is that even long-running, critically acclaimed shows can, in many ways, be forgotten. And if that can happen to Kraft Television Theatre, which ran for eleven seasons, it can happen to any show. Time on the air, then, isn’t a very good indication of how obscure a certain television show will be. Obviously, the faster a show is canceled the less time there is for the viewing public to watch and remember it. But trying to set a cut-off point for television obscurities at one season or less (or at any length) isn’t going to do much good.

When asked once by e-mail what the criteria for an “obscure show” were, I replied with the following:

To be honest I must admit that many of the articles on the site (like The Good Guys, The Young Rebels, The Ugliest Girl In Town) are obscure only in that they have not been syndicated often and have never been commercially released, yet are fondly remembered by many who watched them when they originally aired. In other words, they are “popular” obscurities.

“Popular” obscurities? Isn’t that counter intuitive or at the very least an oxymoron? I suppose, yes, in a sense it is but I also think it describes quite well many of the television show I’ve written about. The New People, for example, would be a popular obscurity because it is remembered by a lot of people, judging from the e-mails I’ve received, but at the same time it hasn’t been syndicated (as far as I know) and has never been released commercially. Other shows I would consider popular obscurities include The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and Cliffhangers.

The problem with calling certain television shows “popular” obscurities is deciding what constitutes a popular obscurity and that leads back to the larger issue of what an obscure television show is in the first place. Why is Camp Runamuck a popular obscurity but not Accidental Family? Is Coronet Blue a popular obscurity because its mystery has confounded viewers for decades or a regular obscurity because very few people remember it? What shows aren’t popular obscurities? Toma? Irwin Allen’s Swiss Family Robinson? Janet Dean, Registered Nurse?

In a sense, this entire discussion is academic. One person’s obscurity is another person’s very memorable show (I can’t think of a good word to describe the opposite of an obscurity). If I’ve leaned towards writing about somewhat more “popular” obscurities it’s only because a) they’re a little easier to research and b) more people are interested in reading about them. I certainly want to write about shows that a little more on the very obscure end of the spectrum (who remembers The Robe or Curtain Call?) and in time I hope I can.

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