Classic TV

Television in the 1980s

If you were a kid growing up in the 1980s, you would naturally say that this decade is truly the golden era of television. Perhaps the most significant milestone in American TV during the 1980s was the advent of cable television. It meant that consumers would have more choices of TV programs, but it also meant that the three major networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – would lose their dominance in American living rooms.

The history of cable television started actually in the late 1970s, with HBO and ESPN being among the pioneers. By the early 1980s, more new cable channels such as CNN, HBO (as well as their sister channels like Cinemax) and MTV started to become really popular with audiences who were looking for something new or interesting on the television.

Apart from cable TV, the arrival of new technologies such as the videocassette recorder, the home movie system, home video games and remote control devices also contributed to the decline of the network television era. The remote control switch in particular, according to TV Guide, “revolutionized the way we watched TV in the 80s.” It also prompted a practice called “channel surfing,” where people would quickly switch channels while looking for something interesting on the television.

Even with these tough challenges, network television was still undaunted and even managed to carve out really good TV shows. 1980s TV was dominated by one-hour dramas and sitcoms; police, crime and detective dramas were also on the rise, as well as primetime soaps. In an era whose culture was dominated by music videos, the extensive use of imagery was responsible for bringing stylish hit TV shows like The Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., and Miami Vice.

Here are some of the shows that truly defined 1980s TV:

1. Cheers (NBC) – The sitcom, set at “Cheers” bar in Boston where locals drink, talk and socialize, started at the rock-bottom on the ratings and was even almost canceled. But eventually, it became one of the longest-running and most beloved sitcoms, having enjoyed 11 years on the air. Read the article “Interesting Facts about Cheers” for more fun trivia.

2. The Cosby Show (NBC) – Starring comedian Bill Cosby, it ran for eight seasons from 1984 to 1992. Despite the name, the show focuses on the everyday lives and misadventures of the Huxtable family, an upper-class African-American family in New York. The show is significant because it paved the way for more shows with a predominantly African-American cast (such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).

3. Magnum, P.I. (CBS) – This crime drama series stars Tom Selleck as the Ferrari-driving private investigator Thomas Magnum who is hired by a wealthy Hawaiian estate owner. It became a hit primetime staple, running a total of eight seasons (1980-1988).

4. The Golden Girls (NBC) – No one ever predicted that a sitcom about four old ladies would become a big hit. But it did! This endearing sitcom starring Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty became a critical darling and a winner in the ratings. It spent a total of seven seasons, from 1985 to 1992. The success of The Golden Girls led to three spin-off shows: Empty Nest, The Golden Palace and Nurses. Check out “Interesting Facts about The Golden Girls” for more fun trivia.

5. Miami Vice (NBC) – Miami Vice was obviously influenced by new wave music and snazzy music videos. And it was intended to be like that, as NBC entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff had scribbled a memo that read, “MTV cops.” And that memo gave birth to this stylish crime drama series about a couple of undercover detectives in Miami.  The iconic theme music, composed by Jan Hammer, even went to #1 on the Billboard pop charts.

6. The Knight Rider (NBC) – It would have been also called as “The KITT Show” because it was just about David Hasselhoff’s KITT, his intelligent, self-aware and almost indestructible high-tech Pontiac. This popular crime drama ran for four seasons (1982-1986) and became a successful franchise.

7. ALF (NBC) – In retrospect, ALF is quite a bizarre TV concept. It follows the story of a typical American suburban family, just like in many other family sitcoms. But that’s where the familiarity ends. An alien accidentally crash-lands in the garage of a suburban middle-class home owned by the Tanner family, who later adopts him. It ran for four seasons (1986-1990).

8. The A-Team (NBC) – For those who were thirsty for more hard-hitting action on TV, The A-Team served them well. The series about the fictitious USAF members for hire became an unexpected hit. Its exaggerated, over-the-top (and sometimes ridiculously executed) action scenes and its popular title theme brought The A-Team to five successful seasons (1983-1987)

9. The Wonder Years (NBC) – This nostalgic series about a boy growing up in suburban America in the late 1960s and the early 1970s won critical acclaim and became a ratings champion. Starring Fred Savage and featuring a famous rendition of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” by Joe Cocker, The Wonder Years ran for six seasons (1988-1993) and landed on several “greatest TV shows of all time” lists. Check out “Interesting Facts about The Wonder Years” for more trivia about the series.

10. MacGyver (ABC) – If you were a kid who grew up watching MacGyver in the 1980s, you knew you wanted a Swiss army knife! The action-adventure series stars Richard Dean Anderson as the secret agent Angus MacGyver. He’s so smart that he can make his way out of near-death situations by using common items like a paper clip or a clothes hanger. It ran for seven seasons (1985-1992).