Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Television (Part 11 of 17)
This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eleven in the series to read other parts go here.
As time has moved on the line between television and the movies has become blurred. In the 90s and continuing through until today no TV show is safe from becoming a feature film at some point and with Nick at Nite and TV Land there’s no longer a as much of a generation gap because these shows can be seen by all now.
The landscape of television changed forever in the 1980s when the Fox Network, headed by Rupert Murdoch, was launched. For a few years they were the butt of jokes but they soon went on to challenge the major networks with shocking, biting, satirical programming such as Married…with Children, The Simpsons, Martin and In Living Color and later even had their own cult phenomenon, The X-Files. Fox busted the monopoly ABC, CBS and NBC had. In the mid-90s The WB, a network by Warner Brothers, and UPN, Paramount, were born, and the WB is currently a tenth of a point out of third in the Nielsen ratings (As of this writing. The WB and UPN have since merged to form the CW).
Cable television along with MTV, previously discussed, became a reality and by the end of the decade was commonplace in American households. HBO (Home Box Office) along with Ted Turner’s stations TNT (Turner Network Television), TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) and CNN (Cable News Network) gave cable a great appeal, particularly with Turner’s purchase of the MGM film library. HBO’s selection in the beginning was small and obscure, but they slowly began to gain an audience.
Network television at the beginning of the decade was very interested in affluence, not nocessarily middle class America. There was Dallas, Dynasty, Silver Spoons – then there was a slight change where the rich could help the poor in Diff’rent Strokes which actually did have a social agenda that was immediately copied in Webster.
Family programming was very important, and was at the top of the ratings for much of the decade with The Cosby Show, ALF, The Facts of Life, a family of sorts, and Family Ties. While Dallas was rolling along in 1982 along came a cross-section of America called Cheers this program was nominated for 117 Emmys during its 11 year run.
In the later 80s we had two strong-minded and independent women burst on to the small screen in a big way. The first was Candice Bergen playing Murphy Brown; this is one of my favorite shows because of what it could do by having the protagonist be a reporter; the show was always current and always very political. In the early 90s Candice/Murphy got into a public war of words with Dan Quayle who objected to Murphy Brown having a baby out of wedlock. It was a truly intelligent show and every episode worked beautifully and the cast knew how to work as an ensemble. There was also Roseanne, starring a former stand up who described herself as a “domestic goddess,” coupled with The Simpsons she lead the attack of the dysfunctional families. On Roseanne no matter how weird things got we saw they’re just a family like any other. They have different problems and manias but they do love each other.
In the 1980s animation was practically all TV the Looney Toons and Woody Woodpecker were all relegated to re-runs and the half-hour animated program was king and there were some good ones. The always hard to categorize Jim Henson had Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies. Thames Productions brought us some of the most unique programming in this genre with Danger Mouse, a mouse who was a spy and Count Duckula, a vegetarian vampiric duck. There were, of course, mythic heroes like Thundercats, Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and his sister She-Ra. Most popular cartoon series of the 80s never made it to the big screen in the decade, He-Man did and that was miserable, there was also a Rainbow Brite film, but no Smurfs (yet) or Snorks, and most shockingly, no Thundercats, which was shot like a film with weird angles and was a precursor to the anime craze that was to follow in the 90s.
While television in the 80s catered much more to what mature audiences wanted to see, it also knew what kids wanted to see because many of these shows still air today. Television is always going to be television, you’ll get entertained here and there but you can’t watch too much without realizing it will almost always the same thing in a different package. Every few years something new will come along and really blow you away but that’s it, and sometimes it doesn’t last. TV in the 80s was better than in the 90s because there was something to reflect. There was a social point to make, and on occasion there were serious political happenings that deserved attention. The 90s were just something we made it through and the 80s were a decade people lived through. Needless, to say the best show of the 90s was Seinfeld a self-professed show about nothing a show that dabbled in the minutiae of everyday events, not that it’s not a brilliant show, but it’s also a tremendously apropos reflection of the decade.