Miami Vice: Transforming Network Television in the 1980s

Dr James Lyons is the Principle Investigator of this research project, employing the landmark police procedural Miami Vice (1984-1990) to interrogate the reshaping of US network television in the 1980s.

This watershed decade saw network television reconfigure itself to adapt to the challenges presented by the spread of satellite and cable television, the popularity of the VCR, and the rise of home computing and videogaming, all of which made vulnerable its established preeminence as domestic audio-visual entertainment.

While previous critical work has identified Miami Vice as a defining show of the era, it has typically framed analyses of its distinctive look and sound with theories of the postmodern, or with questions of audience engagement. In contrast, this study seeks to examine the show's status at the forefront of strategies to adapt to the changing political economy of network television.

One of the most significant but critically neglected developments during this period was the emergence of stereo television broadcasting, first by cable companies, and then by the major US networks from 1984 onwards. NBC, Miami Vice's broadcast network, took the lead in this area, and one of the key tasks of the project will be to reframe understandings of the show in order to assess its significance as a pivotal 'early adopter' application for stereo television sets, many of which were being manufactured by RCA, NBC's parent company.

The legacy of these changes is still being felt in the present media moment, and the research addresses a rather neglected chapter in this recent history. While most criticism of Miami Vice has identified its contemporaneousness in relation to the showcasing of 'designer' fashions, popular music and affluent lifestyles, this project takes an interdisciplinary approach drawn from political economic theory, television studies and cultural studies to situate the show at the heart of a rapidly evolving media economy reshaping programming content to fit emergent modes of consumption.