By Anthony Strand
Right On Schedule is a series looking at a network’s primetime schedule for one night during one TV season. It aims to examine the shows in relation to one another, TV as a whole, and sometimes even the culture as a whole.
NBC Wednesdays (1981-1982)
8:00 Real People
9:00 The Facts of Life
9:30 Love, Sidney
10:00 Quincy, M.E.
Unlike some of the previous lineups discussed in this column, NBC’s Wednesday night schedule in 1981-1982 doesn’t tell us much about the network it aired on. Nor is it a particularly high quality group of shows. Honestly, it caught my eye only because it features an ersatz Odd Couple reunion – Tony Randall in Love, Sidney followed by Jack Klugman in Quincy, M.E. When I saw them back to the back on the schedule, I thought “Oh, that’s cute. What a neat little programming trick.”
Obviously, I couldn’t get an entire column out of that fact. But looking over this lineup, I realized that it serves as a great example of a prominent trend of the time – TV’s awkward attempts to address social issues. As was common in the early 1980s, all four of these shows took on controversial topics to some degree. As was also common, all four of them hedged their bets, committing only halfway to the topics at hand. This allowed the shows to be essentially politically neutral, which certainly made their potential audience larger. But it did it make for “a great night” like the ad campaign promised? Let’s look at the schedule, taking both the good *and* the bad . . .
And there we’ll start with The Facts of Life (which Andrew Rabin recently nominated for our Hall of Fame). A mostly innocuous sitcom set at a boarding school in upstate New York, the show doesn’t seem like one that would court scandal. It was one of the few sitcoms in history to have an all-female regular cast for most of its run, a fact that was refreshingly a non-issue for the show’s characters. I watched many hours of reruns, and I never felt like it was a “girl show” (and I was prone to that kind of nonsensical thinking as a kid). The show also featured Geri Jewell (a Celebral Palsy sufferer like myself) in a recurring role as Blair’s cousin, which meant a lot to me as part of the show’s youthful audience.
Being a TV show about girls doesn’t seem like it should be a progressive move, but it did allow them to do a bunch of stories that wouldn’t have been tackled by a series with teenage boys present. This season alone (its third), the show did episodes (I’d call them “Very Special Episodes,” but they occurred with such regularly that that seems silly) about book-banning protests, Natalie being assaulted, a teen mom accidentally leaving her baby at school, Blair’s mom being diagnosed with breast cancer, Tootie meeting a teenage prostitute, and Jo catching the school’s journalism teacher in a drug deal. Despite the provocative subject matter, however, the topics were always resolved happily and with a hug at the end. It avoided controversy by presenting a world where everyone could always end up agreeing on everything.
The show’s time-slot companion, Love, Sidney, similarly sidestepped an element that could have caused an uproar. The series began life as a TV-movie called Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend, starring Tony Randall as a gay man in his fifties. In the movie, Sidney befriended and eventually took in a single mom and her adorable daughter. The series had the same premise, with two big changes. The first was that the mother, Laurie, was now played by Swoosie Kurtz instead of Lorna Patterson. The second, more important change was that Sidney’s homosexuality wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the first season. The signs were there if you knew where to look for them–and Randall insisted that there was never any question that the character was gay–but the show was careful to present Sidney as a mostly asexual confirmed bachelor type.
So Sidney might have been TV’s first openly gay lead character, but he didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it. Still, the show did engender controversy from both the right (groups like the Moral Majority upset that TV was presenting a cuddly middle-aged gay man as a positive role model) and the left (people bothered that TV’s first “gay” lead character was a mostly-closeted cuddly middle-aged man). By trying to downplay the show’s controversial elements, NBC offended two groups instead of one. Perhaps realizing their mistake, they allowed the show’s creative team to be more explicit about Sidney’s homosexuality in season 2. But by then it was too late, and the show was cancelled in the spring of 1983.
Love, Sidney was followed by Quincy, M.E., starring Jack Klugman as a medical examiner who valiantly figures out unsolved murders. The last survivor of the 70s NBC Mystery Movie omnibus, it had premiered as part of that lineup, but become a one-hour weekly series midway through its first season. The early years focused on standard-issue TV murders, similar to the ones seen on Columbo or McMillan and Wife. By fall 1981, it was entering its sixth season, and the plots were becoming increasingly political. Episodes focused on the need for increased gun control, unjust drunk driving laws, and the rights of the mentally handicapped, among other things. Klugman even went before Congress in the spring of 1982 to testify in support of orphan drugs, sharing what he’d learned from starring in a TV show on the subject.
Despite these topics, Quincy never caused any significant controversy, perhaps because it was already a well-known entity among viewers. By the time it started tackling more daring subjects, it was just “that one doctor show starring loveable old Oscar from The Odd Couple.” It’s easy for a new show like Love, Sidney to cause an uproar, but no one gets too upset when an old favorite like Quincy complains about gun laws. This is especially true when the show in question also devotes an hour to complaining about that horrible punk rock music that the kids like these days.
Which brings us back to the start of the evening, an hour of television so ridiculous that one of the hosts was Fred Willard. Real People was presented as a talk show, with the half-dozen hosts presenting filmed reports in front of a studio audience. These reports starred, as you might guess, real people–average Americans who had unique talents or hobbies or jobs. The hosts also took comments from the crowd, read letters from viewers, and showed pictures of “funny” headlines, billboards, and road signs also submitted by viewers (this bit’s offspring continues to air on NBC every Monday during The Tonight Show with Jay Leno). The highest-rated show on NBC during the 1981-1982 season, it averaged just over 16 million viewers a week.
None of that sounds controversial, and of course it isn’t. But one of the show’s secrets to ratings domination was to appeal to the (straight male) audience’s baser instincts. Most episodes included at least one report where (Real!) scantily-clad women did something while wearing very little clothing. As seen in the TV ad linked above (and also in this one), this was invariably the segment that made it into the commercials. It’s not difficult to see why. “Jiggle TV” such as Charlie’s Angels was on the decline by 1981, and NBC’s marketing department could promote Real People as being one place on TV where viewers could see a lot of skin. That it was a harmless, silly family show hardly seemed to matter.
So that’s NBC Wednesdays in the fall of 1981 – the least controversial lineup you’ll ever see that’s full of hot-button issues.
Next: We begin our three-part look at Sundays during 1960-1961, beginning with ABC.
Previously on Right On Schedule: WB Sundays (1996-1997)