The ironic truth about TV in the ’80s: while the Broadcast networks were producing some of the best programs in the history of the medium, commercial and technological forces were conspiring to dilute their powerful cultural clout. In other words, just when it seemed that the networks had figured out what they were doing, they discovered they no longer had the only candy stores on the block.
What would become three of the most powerful brand names in broadcasting — MTV, CNN, and ESPN — grew up in the ’80s. The prospects of an all-anything channel seemed laughable back then. There were perfectly good ways to get the news; you certainly didn’t need 24 hours of it. And what the heck were you supposed to do with a music video? You listened to music, muttonhead, you didn’t watch it!
Of course, the history of the medium — not to mention the human race — is the story of people figuring out they couldn’t live without what they never knew they wanted. Not only did cable channels prosper, but they quickly begat companions, imitators, and competitors, creating a veritable blizzard of programming that was almost too much to watch…unless you could adjust the schedule to your convenience.
Which is where that nifty videocassette recorder came in. The VCR allowed viewers to manage and organize and control all these programs to maximize viewing pleasure (not to mention the power to build vast film libraries and freeze-frame the nudity!). Karl Marx, describing the Communist utopia, said a man could be a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, a cattle rancher in the evening, and a critic after dinner. Well, in the nascent TV utopia of the ’80s, people could certainly watch shows on all those subjects, along with Atlanta Braves baseball and Flock of Seagulls videos any time they wanted. (Marx might have appreciated being able to zap the commercials.)
Of course, it wasn’t as though people stopped watching broadcast TV. The networks thrived, and the shows that were most popular (Dallas, Dynasty, L.A. Law, Family Ties, even The Cosby Show) reflected the ‘80’s sunny and lavish Reagan-era mores. But a counterpoint was growing in shows about those coping with budget cuts and downsizing — Roseanne’s working class, Hill Street Blues’ middle-level management, thirtysomething’s unfulfilled yuppies. In these, most of which enjoyed greater critical than popular success, we can see the seeds of the gritty, antifamily paranoia that would characterize the hits of the next decade.
DALLAS: J.R. IS SHOT
March 21, 1980
When the popular CBS soap closed out its second season with the fiendish J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) taking two slugs from an unseen gunman, the series stepped up from prime-time hit to worldwide obsession. The show made the covers of such magazines as TIME and PEOPLE, and ”Who shot J.R.?” was the slogan of choice on T-shirts and bumper stickers. It even inspired a hit song. The November resolution — eight months coming thanks to an actors’ strike — drew a record 83 million viewers (surpassed only by M*A*S*H’s series finale in 1983). Thanks to several decoy endings, even Dallas’ stars were surprised by the shooter (Kristin, the ex-prostitute). Make that most of the stars. ”I figured it out before it aired,” says Hagman, who didn’t play the omnipotent Ewing for nothing. The success of J.R.’s plight made the cliff-hanger a standard TV device and inspired a passel of decade-defining greed-fests such as Dynasty and Falcon Crest. Rank 3