TV Flashback Tuesdays: The Big Three Networks in 1990
Welcome to the next installment in my (mostly) weekly feature, in which I look back at some of TV’s most memorable promos, and what they communicate about a network during a certain point in its history.
Since the day after Labor Day usually marks the beginning of the new fall season, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the primetime lineups unveiled by the “Big Three” networks twenty years ago, via their promos.
And what a snapshot of history they turned out to be! The network spots neatly, and oh so embarrassingly, encapsulate how they aimed to sell themselves to viewers (who unfortunately, didn’t have a whole lot of options at the time).
ABC: “America is Watching ABC”
ABC had about $500 to spare for its promo budget in 1990. How else to explain the clumsily edited together scenes of the casts of Doogie Howser, Growing Pains, Wonder Years, China Beach, Full House and Perfect Strangers, plus Roseanne and her Mini-Mes, singing about how the entire country is supposedly watching its network?
The slapdash quality of the promos, in which Doogie, MacGyver and Danny Tanner goof off and mug for the camera, reveals how ABC was unabashedly in the hunt for ratings as the “FUN!!!” network. Despite being home to critically acclaimed dramas like Twin Peaks and Thirtysomething, the ad shows ABC starting to favor inoffensive family sitcoms instead. (Cop Rock might have been one last attempt at innovation, and we all know how that turned out.) The network was right: in 1990, everyone was watching ABC, and its sad decline towards TGIF-style programming.
Best indication its 1990: Candace Cameron and Jack Wagner’s hair
Vintage 1990 TV star: Bronson Pinchot
“Oh yeah, forgot that show existed!”: Father Dowling Mysteries
CBS: “Get Ready for CBS”
Like ABC, CBS believed the best way to promote its lineup was by forcing its biggest stars into an embarrassing singalong. (At least the network chose to have the actors lip-sync to a Temptations hit rather than a propagandist TV jingle.) But it also demonstrates how much CBS struggled against being perceived as an old people’s network, even twenty years ago. The Saved By the Bell-type graphics are a painful attempt to seem youthful and modern, even as those same graphics showcase paragons of hipness like Candice Bergen, Angela Lansbury and Gerald McRaney.
Based on the promo, one would think the only shows airing on the network were Murphy Brown, Designing Women, Knots Landing and Major Dad. In fact, there is not a single person under 30 in that spot. Most jarring of all is when generic rock music blasts during the introduction of news veterans Dan Rather, Charles Kuralt and the 60 Minutes gang. The network tried so hard to evince a badass attitude in the ad, but it seems the only thing CBS wanted audiences to get ready for was menopause.
Best indication its 1990: The hideous, hideous graphics
Vintage 1990 TV star: Meshach Taylor
“Oh yeah, forgot that show existed!”: Major Dad
NBC: “The Place to Be”
Finally, a promo spot that works! NBC’s ad accomplishes what the others did not: two minutes of TV stars acting goofy that’s actually fun to watch. (My favorite moment is when Sam Beckett’s hiccups cause him to take on new identities, including a very ugly woman.) As the the undisputed king of its primetime lineup, Bill Cosby leads off the ad as the “conductor” of the promotional shenanigans. But viewing the promo is to be reminded that the network was home to legends Johnny Carson and Bob Hope as well as Cosby. NBC wasn’t kidding: it really was the place to be.
The other two spots showed ABC and CBS in the midst of identity crises, while this conveys NBC’s confidence as TV’s number one network. Unlike its competitors, NBC had a strong and diverse lineup of dramas and comedies, including some shows that are now considered classics. To watch this promo now is to recognize how superior the network was in 1990, and how it was making smart programming choices (i.e. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Law & Order) that would extend its dominance throughout the decade.
Best indication its 1990: Over-reliance on Raven Symone to bring the “cute”
Vintage 1990 TV star: Crystal Bernard
“Oh yeah, forgot that show existed!”: Unsolved Mysteries