See How Big a Deal Network TV Was Thirty Years Ago

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Before we had unlimited access to a hundred billion channels and streaming options, the big three networks had a literal monopoly. So when September rolled around, you better believe NBC, CBS and ABC pulled out all the stops and treated their brand new sitcoms and hospital dramas as if they were the second coming of Jesus H. Christ…

Listeners of Thirty Twenty Ten (Laser Time’s look back at this specific week in Pop Culture History) know that we can’t stop emphasizing how regimented the world of entertainment was in 1986. Sports got the early part of the year, movies dominate the summer, and TV, like clockwork, become all-new each and every Fall. If you’re keeping score, Netflix just launched two new shows since you were reading this paragraph. 

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Sure, cable TV existed, but since it was still in its infancy, consisting mostly of syndicated reruns, news, and Atlanta Brave baseball, and second-run movies. In other words: Hardly considered a threat to over-the-air television. Even Fox, having only just sowed the seeds of a nationwide network in 1985, was still years away from becoming a legitimate competitor with The Big Three, as they were once called. When it came to new and exciting programming, America had only three choices and below you’ll find a glorious example of NBC, CBS and ABC duking it out for prime time supremacy! Just how did they do that back then? With a cornball jamboree of cheesy music and inspirational footage!

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Oh yes, a full three-minute music video featuring all the network stars! And to put that in a more modern perspective, three whole unskippable minutes of incredibly expensive-looking sizzle, aired during highly lucrative commercial time, and with YouTube twenty years away, most likely never to be seen again. Thank the Lord for those wonderful maniacs recording everything with their new fangled VCRs back in 1986.

ABC – We Belong Together

First up we have ABC’s 1986 promo, which you could easily confuse for stock footage from a karaoke video until you realize you’re seeing some of the era’s biggest TV stars outside the confines of their iconic multi-cam sets. Blink and you’ll miss Cybill Shepherd (Moonlighting), Tony Danza (Who’s The Boss) and Bronson Pinchot (Perfect Strangers) and Howard Hesseman (Head of the Class and FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR!) It’s important to note ABC was not the network titan it is today. Even though the a financial bond with Disney had begun as far back as 1954, Mickey wouldn’t own the network outright until 1990, so Michael Eisner and his Magical World of Disney menagerie of the most recognizable characters of all-time appear for but a split second amidst a sea of unrecognizable 80s hairdos.

CBS – Share the Spirit

Ever the old timers’ network, CBS’s 1986 promo starts off like your grandparents screensaver, showing gently fading stills of the from the network’s My Pictures folder. Almost nothing in the CBS stable during this period had much of a life in syndication afterwards, so the only show I had an recollection of was fucking Kate & Allie, and that’s only because it’s the first show my mom watched that I remember hating as much as vegetables. If it wasn’t for Snoopy, Garfield and the 60 Minutes crew, I may not have recognized anybody in the entire promo. But unlike the other 1986 promos, at least CBS had the balls to call out it’s new programming by name and it shows a remarkable commitment to failure. I’d like to claim I take no joy in every one its new shows (other than Designing Women) being immediately canceled and never heard from again, but here I am full of smiles. Kay O’Brien: Surgeon had legs, dammit!

NBC – Come Home

You could easily mistake NBC’s ultra-patriotic, gospel scented Fall ‘86 promo for the series finale for ALL OF AMERICA if it weren’t for all the interspersed TV stars. Like the ABC promo, NBC doesn’t bother calling out its shows by name, but in their defense, they’re mostly trying to make it clear they’re the most dominant network in the goddamned universe. There was no need for logos and schedules because everybody in the world recognized Golden Girls, Johnny Carson, Cheers, The A-Team, Wheel of Fortune, Highway to Heaven, Family Ties, Night Court, a yet-to-be-disgraced Bill Cosby, and David Letterman, basking in the absolute embodiment of not giving a single shit. There’s also a pretty stellar dolly shot that splices together several of your favorite sitcom sets and their stars, which in and of itself is an amazing lost relic of its time. 

Hope you guys enjoyed this look at the promotional past! Be sure to listen to Thirty Twenty Ten every Thursday and Laser Time every Monday. Already listening? Tell a friend for a karma-based merit badge! And big thanks to Erik H for bringing the AV Club article to my attention. And why not toss that site a thanks they’ll never read for showcasing our Adam Sandler video from last week.  

4 thoughts on “See How Big a Deal Network TV Was Thirty Years Ago

  1. I remember feeling that CBS was the old people network growing up – I probably thought that because I could stay up late on Thursday nights and watch Knots Landing with my Mom.
    NBC and ABC had the shows that I wanted to watch – Why is Highway to Heaven not streaming somewhere? I love Michael Landon – he was the Dad I always wanted even though I found out later he was a jerk to his kids.

    Thank you for always making my 80’s memories cool!

  2. Great stuff! I love the irony that these were the spots I would fast forward through on VHS recordings from my grandma and couldn’t wait to get to the next thing, and now I’m here watching every second of them and longing for those days to come back. Thanks for the look back!

  3. For me, the NBC 1987 Come Home promo is superior. NBC spent less on stock footage of grandpa looking in a barn for his grandkid, and more on actual footage of the stars doing “normal activities” like riding stationary bikes, walking dogs, and Michael J. Fox caught in a newspaper cyclone, falling down a slanted city skylight. Couple this with an epic rock variation on the “Come Home” theme, as well as seemingly random glimpses of Star Wars (guessing NBC had the broadcast rights to the movies then) and Bob Hope cuddling ALF, it’s NBC’s ego blasting through the roof.

    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Zy5Q2Fo5zQ)

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