“Soul Train” turns 50; also, why did traditional dance TV shows end?

Soul Train neon sign

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the national syndicated debut of “Soul Train.” The famous dance show was one of the first nationally aired TV shows featuring a Black creative staff. Hosted by Don Cornelius, “Soul Train” debuted on Chicago’s WCIU in 1970, and then entered syndication on October 2, 1971. The show ran until 2006, after which it entered occasionally seen reruns.

Today, the rights to “Soul Train” are owned by ViacomCBS, which still airs the Soul Train Music Awards, an annual award show that debuted in 1987, and has now outlived its parent show. This year’s Soul Train Music Awards will be held on November 28, and will air on BET.

NPR’s been airing retrospectives and interviews about “Soul Train” on its podcasts “Code Switch” and “It’s Been a Minute.” Of course, I also grew up watching “Soul Train,” Black hair care product ads and all. While “Soul Train” had White viewers and musical guests, the show was primarily aimed at Black audiences, including many of the sponsors and commercials. A pioneering concept in 1971, when its major competitor was Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

“Soul Train” has also become a pop culture icon, complete with numerous references and parodies in the media. (For example, “The Simpsons” had “The Soul Mass Transit System,” one-upping a mere train I suppose.) The opening credits alone are famous. They underwent various changes over the years, from a simple animated opening (in the early 70s), to incorporating disco (in the late 70s), to neon sets (in the 80s), to computer graphics (in the 90s). Almost all of them incorporated the show’s title being sung (in a way evoking, well, a train whistle).

Why did “Soul Train” (and dance shows) end?

That said, NPR’s podcasts raised a good question: why did “Soul Train” end, and why isn’t there a similar show now? The reasons offered by NPR include changing music tastes, “Soul Train” simply aging, the show getting moved to poor time slots, and (after Cornelius retired) a rotating group of hosts that didn’t stick.

Thinking about it, this question not only applies to “Soul Train,” but also the genre of the traditional dance TV show in general. Years ago, shows like syndication’s “Solid Gold,” MTV’s “The Grind,” and ABC’s “American Bandstand” regularly aired alongside “Soul Train” (which outlasted its rivals). The genre was even parodied in movies like “Hairspray.” However, the last few decades have seen this TV genre completely die out.

The appeal of traditional dance TV shows

Soul Train 70s photo

Photo by Daniel O’Neil (Flickr / CC BY / cropped from original)

The appeal of dance shows included:

  • A way to promote popular music.
  • Appealing to young viewers. TV loves to appeal to youthful demographics, of course.
  • Presumably being inexpensive to produce. Music/bands/music rights, a host, and a dance floor?

That said, all of these weren’t enough to save the traditional dance TV show. The following reasons look at why “Soul Train” and other traditional dance TV shows came to an end.

The rise of BET and MTV

Shows like “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand” were probably doomed with the rise in the 80s of BET (for “Soul Train”) and MTV (for “Bandstand,” and “Soul Train” to a lesser degree). Not only could they show music videos 24 hours a day (and promote songs with visual elements), but they also aired their own dance shows. (Cable channel USA also ran a few dance shows.) No need to wait until the weekends to watch people dance on TV or see the latest musical acts. Of course, MTV and BET no longer prominently air music videos themselves.

The first-run syndication boom (and rise of Fox, The WB, UPN, and The CW)

The late 80s, 90s, and 00s saw a boom in first-run syndicated programming: “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Babylon 5,” “Earth: Final Conflict,” “Mutant X,” “Xena,” “Highlander: The Series,” “The Disney Afternoon,” and so on.

The same era also saw the launch of Fox (in 1987) and The WB and UPN (in 1995; both merged to form The CW in 2006). A few smaller networks, like My Network TV and Ion, also launched.

All of these new shows and networks meant fewer time slots available for a show like “Soul Train,” or similar dance shows. “Soul Train” by the aughts was often shoved to poorer time slots. In the 2000s, I can recall “Soul Train” airing on Saturday nights at midnight in my city; a far cry from watching it on late Saturday mornings as a kid.

These days, modern syndicated TV isn’t even this ambitious—instead, local TV programming is full of infomercials, talk/judge shows, and network TV show reruns.

The rise of reality shows (and the music/dance reality show)

Dancing With the Stars

Photo by Map of the Urban Linguistic Landscape (Flickr / CC BY / cropped from original)

The popularity of reality shows in the 2000s and 2010s also saw a rise in singing- and dancing-related reality shows. Reality shows themselves fit the same conditions as dance TV shows: they’re cheap to produce, are full of young people, and have trendy music, all while getting strong ratings.

As such, the modern dance show is more of a dance/music reality or competition show: shows like “Dancing With the Stars,” “American Idol,” “The Masked Singer,” and “The Voice” dominate broadcast TV networks. Meanwhile, BET offers a few R&B/hip-hop dance/music reality shows, such as “The Encore” (R&B singers recording an album in a month). Why bother showing random people just dancing to music when you can have the dancers compete with each other for a million dollar prize instead? Or just put the musicians in a more dramatic/competitive setting for similar stakes?

Changing music tastes

As NPR notes, one factor in “Soul Train”’s demise was the rise of hip-hop, and the show’s failure to keep pace with changing music tastes. Apparently Don Cornelius wasn’t a fan of hip-hop, and discouraged or minimized such acts on his show. Given the popularity of hip-hop and rap as the 80s and 90s wore on, this didn’t seem like the best decision business-wise. As such, “Soul Train” started to look old-fashioned or less hip compared to what was airing on BET.

The rise of the internet (and social media, YouTube, and TikTok)

Woman with smartphone on street

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio (PicNoi / cropped from original)

Finally, the internet is probably the final blow for killing off the traditional dance TV show, like the internet’s done for many other things.

YouTube debuted in 2005, and with it ushered in the era of modern internet video. Social media’s similar rise in the 2000s and 2010s, including Instagram (launched in 2010) and TikTok (launched in 2016), also was a factor.

Now, one can get music videos on demand for any music genre on YouTube, and watch on social media people that recorded themselves dancing. TikTok’s taken on particular prominence in this regard, as it’s now a popular source of Black created dance videos. In 2021, some Black TikTok creators went on strike to protest their dances being stolen/profited off of by White influencers.

Since teenagers and young adults make heavy use of YouTube and social platforms, this is also the ideal way for advertisers to appeal to them, versus running TV ads on a dance show.

Conclusion

Overall, “Soul Train” and similar dance TV shows were greatly influential. However, as for “why did ‘Soul Train’ (and its cohorts) end,” their demise is due to: the rise of cable, other syndicated programming, and the internet; changing music tastes; and the rise of reality shows.

As such, I don’t see a traditional “Soul Train”-style dance show making a significant comeback, unless it’s in the form of a reality competition show. Today’s audiences seem satisfied with watching others dance alone on TikTok/YouTube/Instagram videos, or as part of dance competitions on TV.

Do you have any fond memories about “Soul Train” or other traditional dance shows?

Photo by dbking is licensed under CC BY 2.0  (Flickr / cropped from original)

1 thought on ““Soul Train” turns 50; also, why did traditional dance TV shows end?”

  1. I enjoyed watching Soul Train as a kid in the 80s. It was a welcome break to the other shows on tv. It is curious how dance shows are no longer on air. You outlined several great reasons, but I still feel like I want it to be on tv. Maybe the nostalgia in me.

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