Friday, August 10, 2018

Classic TV’s Curtain Call: 1989

It has always been this blog’s assertion that the 1980s was the last classic TV decade.

That doesn’t mean television hasn’t introduced memorable shows in the years since. It refers instead to how our relationship to the medium began to change in the 1990s, a trend that continues to the present day.

Cable and satellite television added hundreds of viewing options to our TV menu. As a result, viewership for even the most celebrated shows has been greatly diminished. VCRs, DVRs and streaming services all allowed viewers to watch programs whenever they liked. So even if 10 million people eventually catch the same episode of Westworld, they didn’t all watch at the same time. 

For better or worse, new channels and new technology have abolished the communal pop culture experience that television once provided.  

That experience, to me, is what separates the classic TV era from our current TV age.

If we go with that premise, 1989 was the final year of the classic TV era. And what’s amazing is how a closer look at the shows that debuted and ended their runs in that year make a convincing case for our hypothesis – the old order of things have passed away, as television stepped into a more tumultuous future.

Hello: The Arsenio Hall Show, The Pat Sajak Show
If you were a betting man in 1989 you might have put your money on Sajak having the more successful launch, though both series aired opposite the still dominant Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Sajak had higher name recognition from Wheel of Fortune, and he was the very model of an amiable, quick-witted, good-mannered young man from the Midwest. That’s the kind of host TV executives believed audiences wanted to watch before drifting off to dreamland. 

Sajak enjoyed the additional advantage of having his show carried by CBS, while The Arsenio Hall Show played in syndication. But The Pat Sajak Show was gone in about a year, while Arsenio made the cover of Time, put the first real dent in Carson’s ratings, and owned the under-30 audience by booking pop stars and athletes and wrestlers that would never be invited onto Carson’s couch. By the time presidential candidate Bill Clinton showed up to play Heartbreak Hotel on the sax, it was obvious that the formulas that worked on TV for 30 years were no longer reliable.

Goodbye: American Bandstand
The revolution in music brought about by Napster and iTunes was still a few years away, but the cancelation of American Bandstand, a television staple since 1952, illustrated how music no longer needed Dick Clark to gain exposure. MTV, which debuted in 1981, made Clark’s weekly dance party look like the relic from the past that it was. 

Hello: Seinfeld, The Simpsons
While 1989 also featured the debuts of such traditional situation comedies as Coach, Anything But Love, Major Dad and Family Matters, the year’s two most successful new sitcoms, in both ratings and cultural impact, were groundbreaking in format and clearly belong more to our current TV age than the one it followed.  Seinfeld was too subversive to be considered an heir to sitcoms from generations past. Its objective was not to function within the format, but to undermine it with a cynical self-awareness. That it did so brilliantly cannot be denied. And The Simpsons? It’s still on, after more than 600 episodes.

Goodbye: Sale of the Century, Super Password, Card Sharks
All three of these long-running shows left us in 1989, opening up valuable morning broadcast real estate to the likes of Jerry Springer and Maury Povich. Game shows are still with us – high-tech new ones and MA-rated revivals of the classics. But only The Price is Right soldiers on in a format that would be recognizable to someone who stopped watching TV in the 1980s. 

Hello: COPS, Rescue 911, America’s Funniest Home Videos
Who needs actors? Who needs scripts? The reality TV genre rolled into 1989 with hit shows featuring police officers chasing perps through dark alleys, paramedics pulling drivers out of car accidents, and camcorder footage of Uncle Charlie doubling over after little Timmy bats a whiffle ball into his crotch. What a golden age it was. 

Goodbye: Ryan’s Hope, Dynasty
Two popular soaps, one daytime, one nighttime, would not survive to see the 1990s. Dynasty had run its course by 1989 so that cancelation was not painful. 

But Ryan’s Hope had been revitalized by writer Claire Labine and deserved more time to be rediscovered by the audience that left after too many dead-end storylines and recasts of pivotal characters. I still miss Maeve Ryan singing “Danny Boy” at the family bar. 

Other notable 1989 debuts: Nightingales, branded as Aaron Spelling’s attempt to revive Charlie’s Angels with nurses, and canceled after 13 episodes. 

Quantum Leap with Scott Bakula; Saved By the Bell, the Gen-X Brady Bunch, Baywatch, the slow motion jiggle series Aaron Spelling wishes he created instead of Nightingales, and Chicken Soup, a very funny sitcom that was pulled off the air by ABC, despite high ratings, because of inflammatory statements made by its star, stand-up comedian Jackie Mason.  

Well, at least some things haven’t changed.


  1. Mr. Hofstede, what do you have to say about the daytime-soap stigma when it comes to actors? It is worth noting that Kate Mulgrew, Catherine Hicks, and Marg Helgenberger all had regular roles on "Ryan's Hope."

    1. Different times. Back then a TV actor of any kind rarely graduated to feature films, so there were other restrictions as well. However, the three you mentioned certainly overcame such barriers.

    2. No offense, Mr. Hofstede, but a certain daytime-soap director essentially told me back in 2013 that the soap opera stigma was greater than ever.

  2. I sensed 1989 as the year game shows were dying for good, at least on daytime tv. NBC cancelled $ALE OF THE CENTURY and SUPER PASSWORD both on Mar. 24, 1989 (Good Friday that year), and CBS cancelled the Bob Eubanks-hosted CARD SHARKS revival 1 week later on Mar. 31. I still have the SUPER PASSWORD finale on tape (and now DVD) along with another show that NBC aired that evening in primetime for the first time since 1973, 1960's "Peter Pan". "Peter Pan" certainly goes back to the days of communal tv watching, and it was the 2nd play that NBC opted to present live in Dec. 2014 to try to recreate that experience for audiences.

    1989 was also as far as I know the last time that a network presented a preview of its Saturday morning programming. The SAVED BY THE BELL kids, whom I'd never seen before, appeared in "Who Shrunk Saturday Morning", which I recently dubbed from tape to DVD. Also making guest appearances on that show were John Moschitta, Sherman Hemsley, Marsha Warfield, and John Candy, who appeared to promote his new NBC Saturday morning animated series, CAMP CANDY. I remember seeing a few of these previews back in the 1970s, and I haven't seen one since. As I think you pointed out in a previous column, network Saturday morning programming more or less died in the early 1990s, and now the networks, at least NBC, have spread their weekday morning shows to Saturday.

    I thought it was funny seeing Susan Walters in the cast of NIGHTINGALE'S, as she appeared in another show you mentioned here, SEINFELD, as "Mulva".

    1. Jon H, do you remember the ill-fated 1990 revival of "Tic-Tac-Dough" that Patrick Wayne hosted? Keep in mind that the Fox Broadcasting Company (better known as simply FOX) aired the popular animated series "X-Men" on Saturday mornings during much of the 1990s.

  3. I have to say I agree with all of this. There was also a sort of innocence that shows were still allowed to embrace up until the end of the 80s that was lost afterwards. More cynicism took hold, if that makes sense.

  4. I include the early ‘90s in my personal definition of classic, but only so that I can include early Simpsons, Beverly Hills 90210, and Saved By the Bell in my blog.