This post was delayed from before the Upfronts. When I started writing this I was concerned that the 2010-11 season would see the broadcast networks largely abandon Friday nights to no-scripted reality programming, which was the way that many of the networks have been going in the past few years. Friday was seen as the "new Saturday," and not in the sense that Saturday night was once the home of some of TV's iconic series. These days the networks have all but abandoned programming anything serious on Saturday nights except sports and FOX's combination of COPS and America's Most Wanted. In the past few years Friday nights were going in the same direction with only CBS having scripted programming in all three hours in the 2009-10 season. There are hopeful signs in the current schedule, with CBS, FOX and The CW all having scripted programming scheduled for all of their time slots – at least for a while – and the other networks having some scripted programming on the night. Still there's a sense that the networks – except for CBS – are one bad ratings period away from abandoning Fridays forever to the likes of Supernanny and Wife Swap.
It wasn't always thus of course. There has been a long history of good TV shows on Friday nights. While it was never featured the powerhouse programming that Saturdays featured for many years it was a big night for the networks for many years. The tendency was to cater to an older and a younger audience – teens and single young adults were assumed to be out on dates – but before the dominance of the 18-49 demographic in the skeevy little minds of network executives, that was enough. Consider the 1975 Friday line-up ABC had the Jack Webb produced Mobile One with Jackie Cooper and a movie – Mobile One lasted 11 episodes before being cancelled. CBS had Big Eddie, a comedy starring Sheldon Leonard as a former gangster with a heart of gold (it died after 13 weeks because of what was on NBC) followed by M*A*S*H, Hawaii Five-0 and Barnaby Jones. NBC had Sanford & Son, Chico and The Man, The Rockford Files and Police Woman. Can you imagine any network putting shows of that quality on Friday nights today? Well maybe Mobile One and Big Eddie but not the other shows.
And yet that's not the line-up I'm going look at. The 1980s saw an even better group of shows. It marked the beginnings of ABC's TGIF line-up that would really flower in the 1990s, while CBS had two of its big primetime soaps, and NBC was running dramas of varying quality. I thought I'd like to look at the 1984-85 season.
ABC opened the night with Benson, then in its last season. What I have is a truncated version of title sequence from that season. Missing from this clip are Rbert Guillaume, who played the title character Benson DuBois and James Noble who played Governor Gatling. I've chosen this version of the show's title sequence because the only other clip from Benson available on YouTube features the original cast of the series which, except for Guillaume, Noble and Inga Swenson were replaced within two season, and I happen to be a fan of the interaction between Benson and Rene Auberjonois's character Clayton Endicott III. Next up, at 8:30 Eastern was Webster, starring Emmanuel Lewis, Alex Karras and Susan Clark. The show was about a newly married couple who on returning from their honeymoon suddenly find themselves the parents of a small black child whose parents had died. This clip features Heather O'Rourke and is something of a compilation of her scenes in the episode. At 9:00 came a rather obscure show called Hawaiian Heat with Jeff McCracken and Robert Ginty playing a pair of Chicago cops who finally get tired of the cold snow and lack of women in bikinis (which was apparently a big selling point of this show) and arrange to transfer to the Honolulu PD. Given that it was up against Dallas and Hunter it isn't surprising that it only lasted 13 weeks. Finally, in the third hour ABC had the third and final season of Matt Houston, starring Lee Horsley and Pamela Hensley. Added to the cast in this season was Buddy Ebsen as the title character's Uncle Roy. Houston was a millionaire oilman who was a private detective as a hobby. Hensley played his lawyer and personal assistant. The worst thing about the addition of Buddy Ebsen – besides the image of Barnaby Jones firing an Uzi – is that it meant less Hensley...who was the main reason why I watched, given the absurd nature of most of the plots in the show.
Over at NBC the night led off with the first series version of V. Adapted from the mini-series of the previous two seasons (May 1983 and May 1984). Since the second mini-series ended with the apparent destruction of the Visitors thanks to the Red Dust and the capture of Diana, the show needed a way to bring the Visitors back, which they accomplished by having a greedy corporate type free her and then having government collapse when the Visitors came back. It was a reach and the series ran out of ideas after 19 episodes. Following V was one of NBC's genuine successes, Hunter, starring retired football player Fred Dryer and Stepfanie Kramer as a pair of detectives with something of a "Dirty Harry" attitude when it came to dealing with the criminals. The relationship between Dryer's Rick Hunter and Kramer's Dee Dee McCall was at times fractious, although by the second season this was toned down by Roy Huggins, who had been called in by series creator Stephen J. Cannell to serve as Executive Producer. Huggins emphasised the chemistry between Hunter & McCall although he never took as far as latter producers did. The series ran for seven years but fell apart in its last season after Kramer left the series. NBC round off the night with Miami Vice, also in its second season. Starring Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas and Edward James Olmos. The premise of the show is pretty much summarized in the title; the lead characters – Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs – are vice cops in Miami, although in this case the principal vice is the importation and sale of drugs. Since I included the Miami Vice theme a couple of weeks ago I've decided to offer a scene featuring Phil Collins's song "In The Air Tonight." The show was often accused of being essentially a music video masquerading as a TV show, and scenes like this tend to support that theory.
CBS had the powerhouse line-up of the three networks. In the first hour was Dukes Of Hazard which was in its final season with the network. "Them Dukes" were John Schneider and Tom Wopat playing cousins Bo and Luke Duke who were under the watchful eye of their Uncle Jesse (played by the great character actor Denver Pyle) and a host of supporting characters including James Best and Sorrel Booke. The show was a basic battle of Good (the Dukes and their friends) versus Evil (Boss Hogg and Sherriff Roscoe P. Coltrane) but played in an extremely light-hearted manner, with the bad guys being caricatures who were not quite lovable but somehow not hate worthy. Daisy Duke, played by Catherine Bach provided sex appeal – in a very chaste way since she was yet another Duke cousin, and therefore unavailable to the heroes and unapproachable by anyone that she one her family didn't approve of. Following The Dukes Of Hazard was Dallas which was in its seventh season. The 1984-85 season was the one in which Barbara Bel Geddes retired from the show following her heart surgery and was replaced by Donna Reed, and that is the version of the titles I've included here. Dallas was of course the iconic prime time soap about the Ewing Family. The character of J.R. Ewing, the philandering, "ethically challenged" head of Ewing Oil brought Larry Hagman, who had previously played the straight-laced and scrupulously ethical Major Anthony Nelson on I Dream Of Jeannie back to prorminence and eventually eclipsed his fame for his previous role. Finally the network had the third season of Falcon Crest a prime time soap created by Earl Hamner, who had previously created The Waltons. Starring Jane Wyman as Angela Channing the conniving matriarch of a California winery who is in conflict with just about anyone who gets in her way... which is just about everyone. There was a huge turn-over in cast over the years which meant that new characters suddenly shot to prominence, and at times the plot lines became convoluted and down-right ridiculous, but through it all the series was dominated by Wyman's presence.
I doubt that we'll ever see the networks put forward line-ups like these on Friday nights again, but I'm not entirely convinced that the night is a lost cause either if there were a network besides CBS that was willing to think outside of the 18-49 Demographic box and program the night for families with younger kids who can't go out and the right groups of older viewers who don't want to go out. Those are markets too.