The Big Switch 1980's

UPDATED 05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

When the children of the 1980s have kids of their own, they will probably reminisce about the TV they grew up with: Live Aid energizing the world to help end a famine; Mike Tyson fighting for his heavyweight title; Geraldo Rivera digging for the secrets of Al Capone's vault. These are youngsters who have bought Christmas presents from a TV shopping service; sobbed along with Phil and Oprah; got the faith from Jim and Tammy Faye; sat with the family in the living room and shed a tear because E.T. could not phone home. They may not realize it, but they came of age during a revolution in television: Not one of those programs appeared on the three big broadcasting networks, and one of them—E.T.—came into American homes only through the medium of the VCR.

The networks are still powerhouses, of course, and their programming has dominated the '80s. The Cosby Show is one of the most popular programs in history; Cheers and Night Court are as beloved as any comedies the medium has produced. Hawaii Five-O ended its hard-bitten, record-breaking 12-year run and the police officers of Hill Street Blues—whose whacked-out style would have made McGarrett hit the mai tais—became TV's top cops. Dragnet's Joe Friday would have busted Miami Vice's Crockett and Tubbs on a 501—incessant coolness without a permit. St. Elsewhere's doctors share little more than scrub uniforms with the infallible Marcus Welby, M.D. And on Family Ties the avaricious Alex Keaton became a household nerd.

Networks brought us blockbuster miniseries like Shogun and the mammoth Winds of War. They commanded the country's attention with issue-oriented programming like The Day After, with its horrifying view of a postnuclear world, and Amerika, whose melodramatic view of a Russian takeover of the U.S.—a V. without reptiles—almost caused an international incident. The unexpected became commonplace: PBS showed us a heart-bypass operation in prime time; Ahmad Rashad proposed to Phylicia Ayers-Allen midway through a football game; all the networks carried John Hinckley shooting the President.

But the great surprise of the '80s was the growth of non-network TV, which changed the way we see the flickering box. More than half the nation had cable by the decade's end, and one-third of the viewers were watching non-network entertainment at any given time. The VCR began the decade as an expensive toy; today it has pride of place in most households, making each owner a programmer. Ted Turner's superstation TBS spread across the nation's cable systems like kudzu, and was quickly followed by CNN, Headline News and TNT—as well as those other cable outfits unconnected to the flamboyant Atlantan. Time Inc.'s Home Box Office begat Cinemax—and became a major producer as well as consumer of programming. Viacom's Showtime and its Movie Channel prospered. Rupert Murdoch launched the Fox network, in what many experts said was a doomed effort to compete with the majors: America's Most Wanted, Garry Shandling and Tracey Ullman proved them wrong.

The competition steadily grows more fierce. The battle for viewers among the networks, the independents, the super-stations, pay-cable, even rental video-cassettes from the local gas station has its dark side—infotainment (Entertainment Tonight), tabloid TV (Inside Edition), an increase in tastelessness (Married...with Children)—but it also sheds light. Former NBC board chairman Grant Tinker made that network No. 1 in a shrinking, segmented market by insisting on quality and getting it. CBS briefly seized the top spot by counter-programming with one of the decade's greatest entertainments, the superbly written, staged and acted miniseries Lonesome Dove. We can expect more such programs in the future, all perhaps brought to us in the startlingly better pictures of high-definition TV. In time, our TV sets may be able to talk back to the programs they receive. No one can exactly predict how different TV will become, but if past experience is any guide, we're in for a stellar show.

A pioneer in the use of handheld cameras, quick cuts from humor to violence and multiple plot lines that ran for weeks, Hill Street Blues at first couldn't get arrested by Nielsen. But with the late Michael Conrad, Daniel J. Travanti, Veronica Hamel and a precinct of pepper pots, it nabbed 26 Emmys in six years, tops for any dramatic series.

Family Ties was supposed to be about a couple of ex-'60s hippies raising kids in the greedy '80s. Just shows you how things turn out. As adorably obnoxious, premature-yuppie son Alex, Michael J. Fox (with Meredith Baxter-Birney as Mom) walked away with the whole satirical, touching series, now in its seventh and final season.

Wasn't that guy a shrink 11 years ago? Now deadpan, dead-on Bob Newhart is a how-to book writer turned innkeeper on Newhart. His guests are difficult, his staff worse, especially the lazy cupcake housekeeper Stephanie (Julia Duffy). Nonetheless, in four shows over 28 years, Bob usually has packed the house.

L.A. Law features overlapping plots, nasty office politics and a famous episode about a hot sexual move called the "Venus Butterfly." From producer Steven Bochco of Hill Street Blues, you were expecting maybe Perry Mason? It's realistic but not above daffiness: Harry Hamlin, right, once put on a gorilla suit to woo, successfully, deputy D.A. Susan Dey.

The time is 1968 and a quiet suburb is the place on The Wonder Years, starring wondrous Fred Savage as a 12-year-old whose growing pains are recalled by his 30ish self. Not a lot happens—Fred gets a crush, fights with his brother—but nostalgia never had it so good.

Fittingly, few TV characters have had such a love-hate relationship with an audience as thirtysomething's upwardly anguished baby boomers (here, Ken Olin and Mel Harris). The show explores their hopes, their dreams and their Cuisinarts and claims to mean...something.

She's part Diane Sawyer, part Mike Wallace and all Candy Bergen. Murphy Brown is sitcom's most nouvelle newscaster. Fresh from a stay at the Betty Ford Center, she's fast, feisty and sings along with Aretha Franklin records, which makes her old enough to resent her whippersnapper producer (Grant Shaud). Mary Tyler Moore opened the newsroom door for women; Bergen is taking the place by storm.

Poor dears, they don't look like they have no money. But Moonlighting, one of the most expensive one-hour series ever, won't show a profit until it's in syndication. Still, its wisecracking, madcap detectives can't complain. Until the show, Cybill Shepherd's acting career was, uh, flat and Bruce Willis was best known for a jeans commercial. Just look at them now.

Barkeep Sam (Ted Danson) is a likable ex-jock, waitress Diane (Shelley Long, right) was a looker with brains and lip; and Cheers, especially since Kirstie Alley replaced Long, is a neighborhood bar with a fine, lusty, dreamy, sudsy head on it.

For eight years The People's Court has resolved real disputes, and Joseph A. Wapner, a retired judge, can be as cranky as any bench warmer. But we're talking really low budget and small claims here. Is that why it's so much fun and has so many imitators?

With macho stunts, crashing vehicles and up to 54 acts of violence an hour, how could The A-Team miss? Leading a 'Nam unit on the lam, George Peppard and Mr. T. acted baaaad and did good—despite on-set reports that they couldn't stand each other. In three years the show burned out like a junked Jeep but lives on in syndication, comics and cartoons.

Tony Danza went from hacking on Taxi to serving as a domestic for a female ad exec (Judith Light, who won an Emmy on One Life to Live) on Who's the Boss? Soap's Katherine Helmond is less lusty but ditzy as ever as boss-woman's mom.

They dropped the title Oil, but Dynasty's origins are plain as a geyser. For eight years the slick Carringtons have thrived on lust, bad faith, femme-fights in a pond—and Joan Collins (in wig, with John Forsythe, Linda Evans, Christopher Cazenove), the rhymes-with-witch who made a bad word good.

Shōgun gave us a 17th-century shipwrecked sailor struggling to become a samurai. No wonder he struggled—he was played by preppy Richard Chamberlain. Combined with his versions of a frontiersman in Centennial and a lovelorn priest in The Thorn Birds, Dr. Kildare sliced out a nice niche as king of the miniseries: The $25 million Sh?gun had 125 million viewers.

Where The Honeymooners and All in the Family were about blue-collar families, Roseanne is about a frayed-collar family: beleaguered Ma (Roseanne Barr), blimpish Pa (John Goodman) and their beloved, bickering brood. By finding the funny side of strife, Roseanne has become TV's biggest mama in years.

Don Johnson was a difficult actor with a string of failed pilots when he landed the role of Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice in 1984. A year later he, Philip Michael Thomas and the show had given TV a new look: fast cars, ast cuts, faster women, no socks and MTV-inspired flash. Vice's glamour popularized Ferraris, Cigarette boats, Versace clothes—and Don Juanson.

Beauty and the Beast (Linda Hamilton, Ron Perlman) is the best-looking show on TV. In a children's classic lushly retold for adults, he is a romantic rogue who escapes from his underground world only when called upon to rescue the woman he loves. Guess who she is. Guess how often she's in trouble.

They call them Miami Nice, four 50-plus dames (Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Betty White, Rue McClanahan) making hay in their sunshine years. Taking on subjects sitcoms had put in the attic—senility, sex after 60—with style, The Golden Girls, by Soap's Susan Harris, is now a classic vehicle of the '80s.

These Atlanta decorators have a lot more than Georgia on their minds. Designing Women Delta Burke (a triple divorcée) and, from left, Dixie Carter (a widow), Annie Potts (one divorce) and Jean Smart (never married) talk so saucily about—well, mostly men—that viewer protests nixed cancellation.

Claire Bloom deftly summed up the plot of PBS's Brideshead Revisited, Britain's incredibly lavish export: "Boy meets boy. Boy loses boy. Boy finds girl. Girl dumps boy. Boy goes off alone." Anthony Andrews, left, and Jeremy Irons were the boys.

She's the Grand Old Oprah no longer, but she's still the warmer, funnier, more accessible talk show host. Winfrey, an Oscar nominee for The Color Purple, says she learned a lot from outrageous talk rival Phil Donahue, whom she now tops in the ratings. That's gratitude.

Murder, She Wrote marked the return of the whodunit? from whocares? and the TV-series debut of Angela Lansbury, 63. As tweedy, suave Jessica Fletcher, mystery writer and sleuth, the ex-Mame has turned Murder into a Top 10 hit in all six of its seasons.

Imitation, Fred Allen noted, is the sincerest form of television. Ergo, Cosby becomes Growing Pains. This time the Doc stays home with the kids, while Mom works and heartthrob son Kirk Cameron, above, gets 15,000 fan letters a week.

Wan' tough? "I'm gonna spill his teeth," a thug vows. Inventive? A moll hides a gun between her legs. High risk? Wise-guy Ken Wahl (with sometime co-star Ray Sharkey, seated) is down so deep not even his ma knows he's with the feds.

On his eponymous show, Pee-wee Herman seems to be a grown-up, but he lives in a tricked-out house with one "Mr. Window," a talking chair and a refrigerator with desserts that ice-skate. His tee-hee world is Saturday morning's liveliest kids' show: Pee-wee even jumps into the cartoons.

Taking up well beyond A M*A*S*H, China Beach looks at war through the eyes of women—a glitzy USO singer, a hustling hooker and gutsy, introspective nurse Dana Delany, above, and has won more hearts and minds than Vietnam competitor Tour of Duty.

Twice canceled and revived, Cagney & Lacey turned an affinity for issues (AIDS, apartheid) into 14 Emmys. Tyne Daly won four, Sharon Gless, left, two, although she was so gun-shy that when the script called for a concealed weapon, she packed a small can of tomato juice.

When it comes to cohabitation, Susan Saint James, left, and Jane Curtin of Kate & Allie make the funniest twosome since The Odd Couple. Low-comedy high point: Allie finding a condom in her son's laundry.

It could be called The Mini-series' Revenge. In the weathered hands of Robert Duvall, left, and Tommy Lee Jones, megahit Lonesome Dove, about a loony, long-range cattle drive, revived the form with a bang.

Tom Selleck's Magnum P.I. was a hunk with problems. Intuitive, sensitive and sweetly goofy, he'd run from a pack of bad guys, then forget where he parked the car. Selleck was the handsomest guy on TV, and, oh, the hearts Magnum cornered

What's to watch? Above: Live Aid. Below: Morton Downey Jr., Tracey Ullman, Showtime's Brothers and HBO's Not Necessarily the News. Bottom: Home Shopping Network, Max Headroom and Jane Fonda.

It's a mall world in the TV business today. As the major networks weaken, alternative services multiply like boutiques. VCR owners can choose among thousands of videotapes—movies, workouts, cooking classes, etc. Superstations broadcast coast to coast. The 126-station Fox network presents news, drama, comedy and talk shows. Independent stations air syndicated programs. And cable TV pipes up to 35 extra channels into 50 million homes. CNN's general news and ESPN's sports are available 24 hours a day. Movies are offered by HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and the Movie Channel. The arts are delivered by Bravo, kidvid by Nickelodeon, music videos by MTV, soft porn by the Playboy Channel, and satellites can dump the world in your dish. Alas, many new offerings are dreary reruns, dim-bulb chatter shows, trash TV like Fox's A Current Affair. But quality is improving. CNN is superb. Comedians Garry Shandling and Tracey Ullman have funny shows on Fox. And interesting network rejects are starting to show up on cable. The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, a charming dramedy that failed on NBC, has found a home on Lifetime. The problem for narrowcasters is fiscal: Small audiences can't support expensive shows. But as more homes are wired, audiences will grow. At that point, TV could well enter a true golden age.

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