The Syndicated Season: 1987-1988
Originally Published February 1st, 2004
In the late 1980s as FOX burst onto the scene and snatched up dozens of independent television stations, there was still an impressive amount of programming produced for the syndicated television market. Although most of the shows that premiered in 1987 have largely been forgotten, one series has stood the test of time: Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Syndication is a method of distribution, one not confined solely to the television industry (newspaper comic strips, for example, are distributed on a syndicated basis). Unlike network programming, which is traditionally broadcast on network affiliated stations at the same time on the same day, syndicated fare is offered to individual stations and is often shown at various times on various days. Syndicated television has been around since the birth of television in the United States, complimenting network offerings for decades (Sea Hunt and The Adventures of Superman were both syndicated).
First-run syndication refers to programs that are originally shown in syndication; off-network syndication deals with syndicated reruns of network programming. During the 1960s, the popularity of off-network programming cut into first-run syndication -- there are only so many timeslots for television stations to fill, even those without network affiliations. By the 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. Network television was losing its stranglehold on the viewing audience.
Still, with some 241 independent stations operating at the end of 1985 , plus network affiliates filling the hours outside of primetime, there was plenty of room for syndicated programming. While previous years had favored half-hour sitcoms, the 1987-1988 season would focus instead on hour-long dramas, chief among them Paramount's Star Trek: The Next Generation.
During the summer of 1987, NBC announced that its five owned-and-operated (O & Os) stations -- in New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago -- would premiere a new programming strategy in the fall. These stations in would "checkerboard" five new syndicated sitcoms weekly during the prime-time access period starting at 7:30PM . The five sitcoms, aired Monday through Friday, were: Marblehead Manor, She's the Sheriff, You Can't Take It With You, Out of This World and We Got It Made. Each of the sitcoms would also be seen in dozens of other markets and on other NBC affiliates.
None of NBC's O & Os were airing the lucrative, syndicated Wheel of Fortune, which was highly-rated and trumped the bulk of its competition in most markets, including those where NBC's O & Os were operating. Thus the "checkerboard" concept; trick viewers into thinking prime time/network programming began at 7:30PM, not 8PM . Brief synopses of the five sitcoms follow.
In Marblehead Manor, Paxton Whitehead starred as Albert Dudley, head butler for Randolph Stonehill (played by Bob Fraser), a multi-millionaire 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 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.
Originally an award-winning play written in 1936 by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, You Can't Take It With You 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.
View a Promo for You Can't Take It With You
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.
The premise behind Out of This World was simple: Donna Garland (played by Donna Pescow) had married a space alien fourteen years earlier and now her thirteen year-old daughter, Evie (played by Maureen Flannigan) finds herself with 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.
The final series in the checkerboard was We Got It Made, which originally aired on NBC as a network series from September of 1983 through March of 1984. Three years later the show returned in first-run syndication with many of the same actors.
Teri Copley starred as Mickey McKenzie, a good-looking maid, hired by Jay Bostwick and David Tucker, a pair of bachelors living in New York City. Tucker was as stiff as Bostwick was carefree. Tom Villard portrayed Bostwick in both the network and syndicated versions; Tucker was played first by Matt McCoy and later by John Hillner.
At the start of the network run, the guys had steady girlfriends who weren't exactly thrilled that their boyfriends lived with Mickey. By the time the syndicated series began its run, the girls were gone. Joining the show were Ron Karabatsos as Max Papavasilios, a police officer, and Lance Wilson-White as his son Max Papavasilious, Jr.
None of the syndicated programming premiering in the fall of 1987 was as highly anticipated as the two-hour premiered of Paramount Television's Star Trek: The Next Generation. Proving that within the television industry you can go home again, Gene Roddenberry brought his unique vision of the future back to the small screen, starting the week of September 28th (because syndicated programs air at different times on different days in different areas of the country there is no set airdate).
Listen to a Voiceover Promoting Star Trek: The Next Generation
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 . 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) . It came in second in Detroit, Houston and San Francisco; in New York City it was third .
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 . Ratings for the series were so good, in fact, that Paramount renewed Star Trek: The Next Generation for a full second season in November of 1987 .
Two new versions of popular programs from earlier decades debuted in syndication during the fall of 1987. A remake of Sea Hunt, starring former Tarzan star Ron Ely as diver Mike Nelson. Also appearing was Kimberly Sissons as his college-age daughter Jennifer. Lloyd Bridges had starred in the classic Sea Hunt which aired in syndication between 1958 and 1961. This new attempt only lasted a single season.
In The New Monkees, a quartet of four new Monkees were brought together for the syndicated show due to the popularity of repeats of the 1960s series and sales of the albums. 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 . A total of thirteen episodes were produced but low ratings and poor response to their album sunk the series.
The television series co-starred Lynnie Godfrey 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. Today, The New Monkees is but a footnote in the history of the made-for-TV band.
Drama Friday The 13th: The Series shared its title with the popular film franchise, but little else. Louise Robey (credited only as Robey) starred as Micki Foster, niece of the late Lewis Vendredi, a man who had made a deal with the devil that enabled him to become filthy rich selling antiques. Obviously, the antiques were cursed. Thus, whoever purchased usually 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 Ryan Dallion, her cousin (John D. LeMay), Jack Marshak, an antiquities dealer (Christopher Wiggins) and Johnny Venturea, a friend of Micki (Steven Monarque).
Due to the subject matter of the series, it was usually aired in late night timeslots, typically 10PM or 11PM. In an example of fantastic scheduling, the series premiered on a month and a half before Halloween (or October 31st for non-trick or treaters). A special "Halloween" episode was broadcast around the 31st; it dealt with the supposedly deceased uncle Lewis Vendredi rising from the dead. The final episodes were broadcast in 1990.
Bustin' Loose was half-heartedly adapted from the 1981 movie of the same name, which had starred Richard Pryor. The television spin-off starred Jimmie Walker as Sonny Barnes, a former con artist caught by the authorities and sentenced to five years of community service.
View a Promo for Bustin' Loose
He was placed in the home of social worker Mimi Shaw (Vonette McGee), who lived with four orphans. Sonny lived in the basement and worked around the house doing odd jobs. The kids all loved listening to his oft-times exaggerated tales. The kids, Rudey, Trish, Nikky and Sue Anne, were played by Larry O. Williams, Jr., Tyren Perry, Aaron Lohr and Marie Cole, respectively. Watching the opening credits here.
Comedien Dom DeLuise starred in The Dom DeLuise Show (a variety series also called The Dom DeLuise Show aired in 1968) and was 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. A total of twenty-four episodes were produced. The series was cancelled in March of 1988.
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.
Mr. T, famous for his role on The A-Team, starred in T & T as T.S. Turner, boxer turned private eye. Instead of B.A.'s gold jewelry, Turner wore suits. On occasion, he would slip into something a little less professional in order to kick some butt. It began in January of 1988 and aired for two seasons in syndication before moving to the Family Channel in 1990. Alex Amini appeared as Amy Taler, the attorney Turned worked for, while David Nerman played Dick Decker, owner of the gym where Turner blew off steam.
David Frost hosted The Next President, a political series that aired from November of 1987 up until February of 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 of 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 rotated 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.
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 . 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 .
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" .
View a Promo for Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
The series was shown on less than 100 stations, covering roughly 80% of the nation, compared to the 93% coverage for DuckTales . 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.
A two-hour prime-time special entiled "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 . 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 .
In March of 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 by died before production could begin . Geraldo Rivera hosted "Murder: Live from Death Row," seen on over 150 stations in April of 1988 and including an interview with Charles Manson .
Loretta Swit hosted "The Korean War -- The Untold Story," an hour-long documentary that was shown nationwide between May 11th and May 31st, 1988 .
Ironically, the very success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ushered in a new era of scripted syndicated programing, eventually helped lead to its downfall. Over the next decade, as independent stations dwindled, the sheer number of first-runs 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 timeslots. Talk shows airing in the daytime and game shows shown during prime-time access in the evening, remained popular.Works Cited:
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