The Syndicated Season: 1987-1988


The 1987-1988 syndicated season is best remembered as the year Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered. It was also the year NBC attempted to draw viewers with checkerboard strategy offering a new sitcom at 7:30PM each weeknight. With the exception of Star Trek: The Next Generation, most of the shows that debuted in first-run syndication during the 1987-1988 season are long forgotten.

Syndication In The Late 1980s

In the television industry, syndication refers to a method of distribution for programming that does not go through a network. Syndicated programs are offered to individual stations across the country. Unlike network programming, which is traditionally broadcast on affiliated stations at the same time on the same day, syndicated programming can be seen at various various times on various days. Certain time slots are obviously more desirable than others. A syndicated series broadcast at 3AM on many stations won’t do nearly as well as one that airs in the early evening or Saturday afternoons.

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First-run syndication refers to programs that are originally shown in syndication while off-network syndication deals with syndicated reruns of network programming. During the 1960s, the popularity of off-network programming cut into the market for first-run syndicated shows. There are only so many time slots for television stations to fill. By the mid-1980s, the television landscape was undergoing dramatic changes brought on by the development of cable, the rise of VCRs and home video, and the birth of the Fox network.

There was still plenty of room for independent stations, however. There were some 241 independent stations operating at the end of 1985 [1]. Without network programming, these stations needed to fill most of their schedules with syndicated shows. Plus, network affiliates needed programming to fill the time slots the networks weren’t. While in previous years first-run syndication had favored half-hour sitcoms, the 1987-1988 season would see a rise in the number of hour-long dramas, chief among them Paramount’s Star Trek: The Next Generation.

NBC’s Checkerboard Strategy

In the summer of 1987, NBC announced that its five owned-and-operated stations in New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago would debut a new programming strategy at the start of the 1987-1988 season. The network’s O&Os would checkerboard five new sitcoms during the prime-time access period starting at 7:30PM, with one airing each day of the week in that time slot, Monday through Friday [2]. The five shows were Marblehead Manor, She’s the Sheriff, You Can’t Take It With You, Out of This World and We Got It Made.

None of NBC’s O&Os were airing the lucrative syndicated game show Wheel of Fortune. It was one of the highest-rated syndicated programs on the air and easily beat its competition in most markets, including those where NBC’s O&Os were operating. Because the checkerboard strategy offered a new show at 7:30PM each weeknight, NBC hoped it would trick viewers into thinking prime time and network programming began at 7:30PM rather than 8PM [3]. For that reason, the strategy was referred to as NBC’s “Prime Time Begins at 7:30″ campaign.

The Checkerboard Shows

Marblehead Manor – Paxton Whitehead starred as Albert Dudley, head butler for Randolph Stonehill (played by Bob Fraser), a multimillionaire living in a magnificent mansion. The series revolved around Stonehill and his wife Hilary (played by Linda Thorson) interacting with the workers. Whether they were inept or just lazy, things almost always went wrong and Albert and Hilary were stuck keeping Randolph from blowing up at the staff and the staff from revolting against Randolph. A full season’s worth of episodes was produced.

She’s The Sheriff – This series marked the return of Suzanne Somers to the sitcom genre. She played Hildy Granger, a woman surprised to find herself serving as sheriff in a small Nevada town after her husband, the former sheriff, is killed. George Wyner played Max Rubin, her power-hungry deputy who had expected to become deputy after Hildy’s husband had been killed. The series ran for two seasons consisting of forty-eight episodes. Stories focused on her adventures as she tried to juggle her job and her two young children.

You Can’t Take It With You – Originally an award-winning play written in 1936 by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman came to television five decades later in the form of a sitcom. Former M*A*S*H-er Harry Morgan starred as Martin Vanderhof, a cantankerous old man who also served as narrator. The series was produced by Moss Hart’s son and ran for a total of twenty-six episodes.

Lois Nettleton co-starred as Penny Vanderhof Sycamore, Martin’s daughter, whom he lived with. Richard Sanders portrayed Paul Sycamore, Penny’s husband. He was a toy inventor. Theodore Wilson appeared as Durwood Pinner, who lived next door and built some of the toys Paul came up with. Lisa Aliif and Heather Blodgett played the Sycamore children, Alice and Essie. The theme song was written by Christopher Hart.

Out of This World – The premise was simple: Donna Garland (played by Donna Pescow) had married an alien fourteen years earlier and now her thirteen year-old daughter, Evie (played by Maureen Flannigan) has developed strange powers. She can stop time by touching her index fingers together, teleport herself and think objects into existence. Burt Reynolds supplied the voice of Evie’s father, who she spoke with but never actually saw. The series ran for four seasons and ninety-six episodes, ending in May of 1991 with Evie turning eighteen. Scott Baio created and produced the series.

We Got It Made – This series originally aired on NBC from September 1983 through March 1984. When it returned in syndication, much of the original cast was gone. Teri Copley starred in both versions as as Mickey McKenzie, an attractive twenty-something hired by a pair of bachelors living in New York City to be their maid. Tom Villard played carefree salesman Jay Bostwick in both versions; Matt McCoy played stiff lawyer David Tucker in the NBC versions; John Hillner took over the role when the series returned in syndication.

At the start of the network run both Jay and David had steady girlfriends who weren’t exactly thrilled that their boyfriends lived with Mickey. By the time the syndicated series began its run, the girlfriends were gone. Joining the show were Ron Karabatsos as Max Papavasilios, a police officer, and Lance Wilson-White as his son Max Papavasilious, Jr.

In addition to the network’s O&Os, the sitcoms would also been seen on other NBC affiliates as well as other stations both network and independent. Marblehead Manor, You Can’t Take It With You and We Got It Made were all cancelled at the end of the 1987-1988 season. She’s the Sheriff would last through the 1988-1989 season while Out of This World stayed on the air for four seasons, ending in May 1991.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

The return of Star Trek to television was a highly anticipated event. Star Trek: The Next Generation, created by Gene Roddenberry, premiered during the week of September 28th, 1987. Some fifty network affiliates pre-empted network programming to broadcast the premiere during prime time; at least nine ABC affiliates planned on continuing to air series in place of low-rated Once a Hero [4]. In several major markets, including Los Angeles, Denver and Miami, the two-hour premiere easily beat its network competition (with ratings of 21.2/29, 17.0/28 and 17.3/25, respectively) [5]. It came in second in Detroit, Houston and San Francisco; in New York City it was third [6].

Overall, in Nielsen’s fifteen major markets, the premiere averaged a 21 share and, more importantly, an impressive 300% improvement in share over the comparable year-ago numbers in those same markets [7]. Ratings for the series were so good, in fact, that Paramount renewed Star Trek: The Next Generation for a full second season in November 1987 [8]. The series ultimately ran for seven seasons and 178 episodes, with the last first-run episode airing in May 1994.

Other Scripted Programming: Comedy

The New Monkees – The popularity of repeats of the 1966-1968 NBC series led to the creation of this remake. Over 5,000 auditions were held before Larry Satlis, Dino Kovas, Jared Chandler and Marty Ross were chosen to take on the mantle of the original band [9]. Lynnie Godfrey co-starred as Helen, a giant pair of floating lips who mused about what was going on. Also appearing was Gordon Oas-Heim as Manford, the Monkee’s butler and Bess Motta as Rita, a waitress at the diner the foursome frequented. The series was cancelled halfway through the 1987-1988 season; a total of 13 episodes were produced.

Bustin’ Loose – Adapted loosely from the 1981 movie of the same name, Jimmie Walker starred as Sonny Barnes, a former con artist caught and sentenced to five years of community service. He was placed in the home of social worker Mimi Shaw (Vonette McGee), who was raising four orphaned children. Sonny lived in the basement and worked around the house doing odd jobs. The kids all loved listening to his often exaggerated tales. The series was cancelled at the end of the 1987-1988 season; a total of 26 episodes were produced.

The Dom DeLuise Show – Comedian Dom DeLuise starred in this series, joined by several of his pals from the stand-up comedy circuit for this one-season sitcom. The action was centered in Dom’s Barber Shop, which was situated across from a major motion picture studio, meaning plenty of interesting folk could drop by for a trim. The series was cancelled after the 1987-1988 season; a total of 24 episodes were produced.

Occasionally, the regulars spoke directly to the camera with witty comments about one another or a specific situation they were in. Dom’s co-stars included George Wallace as George Wallace, Dom’s Partner, Charlie Callas as a private detective working out of the barbershop, Maureen Murphy as Maureen, a manicurist, Angela Aames as Penny, who worked down the street, Michael Chambers as Michael Chambers, a pizza delivery boy, and Billy Scudder as Billy, who wore a sign for the barbershop on his back.

Other Scripted Programming: Drama

Sea Hunt – A remake of the popular 1958-1961 syndicated series starring Lloyd Bridges, this hour-long series starred former Tarzan actor Ron Ely as diver Mike Nelson. Nelson would rent his boat out for just about any job. Kimberly Sissons co-starred as his Jennifer, who joined her father on many of his excursions. The series was cancelled at the end of the 1987-1988 season; 22 episodes were produced.

Friday The 13th: The Series – Although it shared its title with the popular film franchise, this series was otherwise unrelated. Louise Robey starred as Micki Foster, whose late uncle had made a deal with the devil that allowed him to get very rich selling antiques. The antiques were cursed, however, and whoever purchased them died shortly thereafter.

After her uncle passed away, Micki was left with the task of tracking down all the antiques that had been sold and hide them away somewhere safe. Helping Micki in her quest were her cousin Ryan Dallion (played by John D. LeMay) and antiquities dealer Jack Marshak (played by Christopher Wiggins). Due to the subject matter, the series was usually aired in late night time slots, typically 10PM or 11PM. It would remain on the air for three seasons and 72 episodes, with the last episode airing in May 1990.

Mid-Season Entries

T & T – Mr. T starred in this hour-long series as T.S. Turner, a former boxer now working as a private detective. His partner was lawyer Amy Taler (played by Alex Amini). There were plenty of opportunities for T.S. to have to get get his hands dirty dealing with bad guys. David Newman played Dick Decker, owner of the gym where T.S. Blew off steam. The series returned for a second season with some cast changes and then moved to The Family Channel for its third and final season with additional cast changes. A total of 65 episodes were produced.

News, Sports & Game Shows

David Frost hosted The Next President, a political series that aired from November 1987 up until February 1988. Frost interviewed presidential candidates as they campaigned for the office. Road To Calgary was a fifteen-part look at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Geraldo was the newsmagazine of Geraldo Rivera. Win, Lose or Draw was both syndicated and airing on NBC, meaning there were two times the popular game show. Will Shriner hosted The Wil Shriner Show, a hybrid talk/variety series.

American Ski Week, a limited, fourteen-week sports series, premiered in late December 1987, focusing on skiing and other winter sports. Mitch Gaylord hosted The Fan Club, a weekly series that focused on young celebrities. It’s Showtime at the Apollo was hosted by a variety of stars who introduced musical groups and comedy acts. Ricard Simmons hosted Richard Simmons’ Slim Cooking, a fitness-and-cooking series. D.C. Follies, starring the Krofft Puppets, spoofed politics.

Children’s Programming

A slew of animated and live-action programming directed towards children premiered in the fall of 1987, including The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, Beverly Hills Teen Club, Bravestarr and DuckTales. Of the bunch, DuckTales was the most popular, averaging a 3.9 rating in 153 markets as of November 1987 [10]. The Comic Strip, from Lorimar Telepictures Corp., was offered to stations as a weekly series or a weekend block and was averaging a 1.5 rating in November [11].

The most controversial new children’s series was Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, which offered viewers the choice of interacting with the programming via toys manufactured by Mattel. The show was criticized by politicians for helping to make the children’s television market “a waste site strewn with war toys, insipid cartoons and oversweetened cereals” [12].

The series was shown on less than 100 stations, covering roughly 80% of the nation, compared to the 93% coverage for DuckTales [13]. It lasted only a season, as did The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin and Beverly Hills Teen Club. Bravestarr ended in 1989, while DuckTales ran until 1990.

Special Programming

A two-hour prime-time special titled “The National AIDS Test – What Do You Know About Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome?” was aired on over 100 stations on Tuesday, September 15th, 1987, sponsored by Metropolitan Life Insurance and aired without commercial interruption [14]. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and other health experts answered questions from celebrities like Susan Dey, Gregory Hines, Helen Hayes and Morgan Fairchild.

“Return to the Titanic … Live,” hosted by Telly Savalas, ran for two-hours on over 150 stations on Wednesday, October 28th from 8-10PM and drew a huge 22.9/33 rating, which would have placed its seventh on the week’s most-watched programs had it aired on one of the networks [15].

In March 1988, a two-hour telefilm entitled “Bonanza: The Next Generation” was shown in syndication. Included in the cast were Michael Landon, Jr. and Gillian Greene, daughter of Bonanza star Lorne Greene, who had been set to star in the telefilm but died before production could begin [16]. Geraldo Rivera hosted “Murder: Live from Death Row,” seen on over 150 stations in April 1988, which included an interview with Charles Manson [17].

Loretta Swit hosted “The Korean War — The Untold Story,” an hour-long documentary that was shown nationwide between May 11th and May 31st, 1988 [18].

Future of First-Run Syndication

The success of Star Trek: The Next Generation marked the dawn of a new era of scripted dramatic programming for first-run syndication. Over the next decade, as the number of independent stations dwindled, the sheer number of first-run dramas meant no single program could match the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even the third Star Trek series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, was unable to live up to its predecessor.

Faced with competition from other hour-long dramas, as well as the new networks UPN and The WB in 1995, first-run syndicated programs were relegated mostly to Sunday afternoons or late-night time slots and eventually disappeared entirely. Talk shows airing in the daytime and game shows shown during prime-time access in the evening remained popular, however.

Works Cited:

1 Stevenson, Richard W. “Fresh Fare Puts a New Face on Independent Stations.” New York Times. 2 Feb. 1986: A.27.
2 Roush, Matt. “Some really neat stuff for the Beaver’s 30th.” USA Today. 24 Jun. 1987: 03.D.
3 Belkin, Lisa. “Redefining Prime Time: It’s All in Who You Ask.” New York Times. 11 Aug. 1987: C.16.
4 Harmetz, Aljean. “Syndicated ‘Star Trek’ Puts Dent in Networks.” New York Times. 4 Oct. 19887: 67.
5 Walley, Wayne. “Tracking Shares.” Advertising Age. 12 Oct. 1987: 78.
6 Ibid.
7 Roush, Matt. “Out-of-this-world ratings for the new ‘Star Trek’.” USA Today. 7 Oct. 1987: 03.D.
8 Roush, Matt. “‘Sunday Today’ may sleep in next year.” USA Today. 19 Nov. 1987: 03.D.
9 Westbrook, Bruce. “Hey hey, they’re the New Monkees.” Houston Chronicle. 18 Sep. 1987: 11.
10 Walley, Wayne. “Tracking Shares.” Advertising Age. 9 Nov. 1987: 72.
11 Ibid.
12 “Toy Jet To Shoot At TV Screen Raises Concerns.” Associated Press. 16 Sep. 1987: PM Cyle.
13 Walley, Wayne. “Tracking Shares.” Advertising Age. 9 Nov. 1987: 72.
14 Estill, Jerry. “Questions, Answers Explicit On Syndicated AIDS Test.” Associated Press. 8 Sep. 1987: PM Cycle.
15 “‘Titanic’ Draws One-Third of Audience.” Associated Press. 4 Nov. 1987: PM Cycle.
16 Roush, Matt. “Greene’s death won’t stop ‘Bonanza’ sequel.” USA Today. 14 Sep. 1987: 03.D.
17 Carmody, John. “Live, Murder from Death Row.” Washington Post. 15 Apr. 1988: B6.
18 Buck, Jerry. “Loretta Swit Host of Documentary on Korean War.” Associated Press. 10 May 1988: PM Cycle.

Originally Published February 1st, 2004
Last Updated June 8th, 2013

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