Everyone was laughing at television as the networks unveiled their new series in September 1978. And with 24 sitcoms on the schedule, it was difficult not to crack a smile, especially when considering – 35 years out – several of the series are now considered classics.
In 1977, ABC used its Tuesday shows (“Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Three’s Company” and “Soap”) to unseat CBS’s reign as the No. 1 network. So it leaned on Garry Marshall, who created “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley,” to double down for the new schedule – and Marshall came up with “Mork & Mindy” and “Angie.” By season’s end, his quartet of comedies was four of the five most-watched series on television.
CBS, using the theme “Turn us on, we’ll turn you on,” countered with new shows that ran the gamut from “WKRP in Cincinnati” to a variety show with Mary Tyler Moore. NBC, promoting its lineup with “NB See us,” moved from struggling to strangling with such forgotten entries as “Grandpa Goes to Washington,” “Sword of Justice” and “Who’s Watching the Kids.” It was pinning most of its hopes on “Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday,” while new boss Fred Silverman ripped up schedules in search of something that might work.
As a footnote, Western Pennsylvania loomed large. Joe Namath was given his own sitcom, “The Waverly Wonders,” Michael Keaton (along with David Letterman) were members of the young featured cast on Mary Tyler Moore’s show, and Lou Christie sang the theme song of the short-lived “People” (based on the magazine).
Also, ABC ventured into the unknown with “Battlestar Galactica,” a relatively unsuccessful series that gained geek status and returned in revived form decades later. Meanwhile, “Donny & Marie,” the last successful network variety show, entered its final year – and the genre has yet to be resurrected.
Here’s what you most likely were watching 35 years ago this month:
CBS and specials: CBS owned the top-rated nonsitcom on TV with “60 Minutes,” and the “All in the Family” and “Alice” block was potent. But “Mary,” which was sandwiched in at 8 p.m., never caught on. Kids could opt for Disney or “Hardy Boys” over “60 Minutes,” and ABC made an admirable attempt with “Battlestar Galactica” opposite “Mary.” None of the new shows survived. Ron Liebman’s “Kaz” endured four time-slot changes, while “Lifeline,” a medical documentary, didn’t make it to year’s end. Instead, viewers preferred movies, specials and mini-series.
“Little House” and “Lou”: Because the other networks couldn’t find compatible sitcoms at 8 p.m., NBC hung to its one winning night with “Little House on the Prairie,” and, because “Monday Night Football” had not yet become a juggernaut, CBS had success with “M*A*S*H,” “One Day at a Time” and “Lou Grant” from 9 to 11 p.m. CBS also scored early in the evening with its new “WKRP in Cincinnati” (facing off against ABC’s “Welcome Back Kotter”), even though it was coupled with “People.” While today “WKRP” is revered as one of television’s best-ever sitcoms, CBS didn’t know what to do with it – it had 12 time slots in its four-year run.
As easy as ABC: This remained television’s most popular night that year, with most viewers tuned to ABC mega-hits “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “Three’s Company” and the new “Taxi.” “Starsky and Hutch,” in its final year, filled the 10 p.m. slot. The other networks failed to counteract with the new “Paper Chase” and “Grandpa Goes to Washington,” both of which were axed, and filled in with movies at 9 p.m.
Don’t touch that dial: Were people too lazy to turn the dial the following night, or did they really like “Eight is Enough,” “Charlie’s Angels” and Robert Urich’s new “Vegas”? Either way, ABC ruled again with this winning lineup. CBS did OK with “The Jeffersons,” but again failed to pair it with a strong sitcom. NBC may have touted “Dick Clark Live,” but viewers gave up on it by December, most likely because Clark insisted on mixing ’50s and ’60s pop acts into the mix of current stars.
“Mork” and mixed bag: To say ABC scored with its new “Mork and Mindy” is an understatement. But to say ABC achieved its ultimate goal of setting up a second night of killer comedies may be saying too much.
The network cobbled together a lineup of “Mork,” “What’s Happening,” “Barney Miller” and “Soap,” but it didn’t quite click, perhaps because older viewers still preferred CBS’s “The Waltons,” “Hawaii 5-0” and “Barnaby Jones.” The two lineups were able to quickly vanquish NBC’s “W.E.B.,” the show that replaced it, “David Cassidy: Man Undercover,” and the 8 p.m. entry, “Project UFO.” It also should be noted that once ABC replaced “What’s Happening” with “Angie,” the 8 p.m. hour did indeed score ratings to rival its own Tuesday night.
“Who’s Watching the Kids?” … or TV?: As in the previous season, the networks couldn’t come up with much reason to stay home on Friday nights. The only staple on any of the networks was the aging “Rockford Files,” while “Donny & Marie” hung on to diehard fans of variety fare. All of the new series were short-timers: “Waverly Wonders,” “Who’s Watching the Kids?” “Flying High” and “Eddie Capra Mysteries.”
Lovin’ the fantasy: ABC, which had the Midas touch that season, decided to pair the returning “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” and together they sailed the high seas on Saturday. To be fair, the 8 p.m. slate of “Carter’s Country” and “Apple Pie” sank quickly.” But it was undeniably ABC’s night. New series “American Girls” (CBS) and “Sword of Justice” (NBC) were quickly forgotten, as was the former CBS sitcom block that once ruled the night. CBS tried another dubious pairing of “Rhoda” and “Good Times,” but it didn’t work.
Yet one other move CBS made that year proved to be as strategic as any made by rival ABC.
In an attempt to save a lukewarm spring tryout, CBS moved “Dallas” to Saturdays in the fall of 1978. The show began to show signs of life, and the network quickly moved it to Sundays, when more viewers traditionally tuned in.
After incubating there through the holiday season, CBS shifted it to Friday to replace the plummeting “Flying High.” It quickly became a hit, set the network up to topple ABC, not only on Saturday but also throughout the week and, more importantly, established the prime-time soap opera.
It also established one of television’s iconic characters: J.R. Ewing.
Cue the music.
Top TV series of 1978-79
1. Laverne & Shirley
2. Three’s Company
3. Mork & Mindy
4. Happy Days
6. 60 Minutes
8. The Ropers
9. All in the Family