Television in the 1980s


Introduction to Classic Television 

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).

Television in the 1980s

7 Memorable TV Events of the ‘80s

The 1980s were the time when many popular shows were either at their peaks or just getting started. It was also a time when many famous sporting events were shown around the world to huge crowds. And really, it was the first decade in which things we saw on TV still made us think 30 years later.

Here are the best TV moments of the 1980s that happened in drama, comedy, sports, music, and even overseas.

The Miracle on Ice (1980)

There isn’t much chance that a single hockey game will have a TV moment that people will talk about and remember fondly over 35 years later. But in February 1980, the Soviet Union played the United States in a hockey game at the Winter Olympics that will never be forgotten. People who don’t remember the details may not know that a U.S. team made up mostly of college players played a professional Soviet team that was widely thought to be one of the best ever put together. Less than two weeks before their legendary semi-final matchup, the Soviets had beaten the Americans 10-3, but on the world stage, the U.S. pulled off the ultimate underdog victory with a 4-3 win that was seen by millions of people watching live on TV. Since then, a movie has been made about the game, and Rotten Tomatoes reviews show that the story still moves people.

The Ken Barlow Wedding (1981)

The Ken Barlow Wedding might not be as well-known in the U.S., but it was a pretty big event in British TV history. In the long-running British soap opera Coronation Street, Ken Barlow was one of the most popular characters. In 1981, he married another character named Deirdre Langton. Over 24 million people watched the episode on the ITV network, which was more than the number of people who watched Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s real wedding a few months later. It was also a big deal because it helped Barlow become more well-known. He went on to be the last original cast member on a show that was briefly in trouble. Coronation Street is still popular today in part because Barlow stuck with it and because they kept trying to find new actors. With new popular cast members, the show still has a lot of fans. In fact, Gala Bingo’s site now has a “Coronation St.” game. If not for a TV wedding in 1981, the show might not have lasted long enough to have a new generation of fans, let alone a themed bingo game in its honor.

Macintosh Superbowl Ad (1984)

If you saw the Steve Jobs movie last year, you got a taste of how important a single ad from 1984 was to Apple’s success. Really, it’s hard to explain the ad. It’s better to just watch it. It had a dark, Orwellian feel to it, which was perfect for 1984, and it never once showed or talked about a Mac computer. Over time, though, it has become known as one of the most brilliant and powerful ads ever made. It was also one of the first ads to leave Superbowl viewers speechless.

Madonna Kicks off SNL (1986) 

In the middle of the 1980s, Saturday Night Live faced a bit of a crisis. Eddie Murphy, who had become the main star, left to focus on his movie career. The disastrous season 11 run from 1985 to 1986 threw the show off for a short time, but before season 12, Lorne Michaels changed the cast and tried boldly to get the show back to what it was. The new season began with a monologue from the show’s host, Madonna, in which she called the last season a “horrible dream.” From then on, things on SNL got a lot better. Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, and Kevin Nealon all became famous, which helped the show keep going strong 30 years later.

Who Shot J.R.? (1980)

The shooting of J.R. in Dallas is still one of the most shocking and exciting things that has ever happened on TV. Some people say that this was the first “TV cliffhanger” because fans had to wait until the start of the next season (in an episode called “Who Done It?”) to find out what had happened. So, this famous ’80s moment is probably the reason why shows like Game of Thrones drive you crazy every week with cliffhangers.

Thriller Debuts (1983)

Michael Jackson released a 13-minute music video for the song “Thriller” at the end of 1983. At the time, it was a brave and risky move that has since become almost mythical. It has been called the best music video of all time by MTV, VH1, and other music magazines, while Billboard says it was more of a pop culture event than just a music video. At the end of the day, “Thriller” made a man who was already bigger than life even bigger.

Miami Vice Debuts (1984)

The 1984 premiere of Miami Vice has to be on the list because many people think that no other show better shows what the ’80s were all about. Even though the show only ran until 1990, it changed the way crime dramas are made. Even though it didn’t do well in the ratings when it first came out, at least 27 actors owe their careers to a guest appearance, which makes it a big deal. With the film adaptation in 2006, the fashion and style legacy has continued into the new millennium. It has also influenced video games, most notably the 2005 game by Atomic Planet and 2002’s GTA: Vice City, which were both inspired by the book.

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