The sitcom is so problematic that ABC ceded creative control to the NAACP

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URBAN LEGEND TV: ABC had to cede some creative control of its new sitcom, just our luckto the NAACP after the organization rallied the public against the sitcom for being overly problematic regarding its handling of racial issues.

One of the interesting things in TV history is how slot battles really got Major impact on programming decisions at the time. It doesn’t really come up that often these days when audiences are so fractured that people just put shows on another time if two shows they like to put on at the same time, but in the pre-DVR days your timeslot was often your battleground and losing your timeslot was often dealt with a drastic response from the networks. For example, in 1961, NBC introduced the first “Night at the Movies” regular concept on Saturday nights. They aired against the hit CBS drama, Smoke. In this first season, Smoke was the 3rd ranked show in the country. Over the decade, NBC Saturday night at the cinema became increasingly popular until it reached the Nielsen Top 20 in 1967, the same year that Gunsmoke slowly but surely fell from 3rd to 10th to 20th to 27th to 30th to break out of the top 30 entirely. That was how draconian things were at the time, CBS told CBS: “Okay, I guess Smoke has to go”, so it was cancelled. But then someone came up with the idea to just try Smoke in a new timeslot instead and so he got a reprieve and for his 13th season he moved to Mondays at 7:30, and wouldn’t you know he was in the top five in the country again (#4 )! He remained in the top ten for the next SIX seasons (including being No. 2 overall in his 15th season) before dropping from Season 19 to No. 15 and then to No. 28 in Season 20 before to be canceled again for good.


I bring this up just to show how freaked out ABC was when The A-team debuted in early 1983.

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Historically, ABC was not a particularly popular network. They were often treated as a joke compared to CBS and NBC. Even their own employees felt they were a joke (like when they tried to counterprogram coverage of the 1960 presidential election with The Bugs Bunny Show!), but by the late 1970s they had become a force to be reckoned with, especially in the world of sitcoms, thanks to their Tuesday night lineup of Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and company of three. Each of these shows was, at one point or another, the highest-rated sitcom on television (the first two each spending a year as the highest-rated show period).


In the early 1980s, however, they were starting to get a little long in the tooth, with the 1981/82 season ending in Happy Days ranked #18, Laverne and Shirley ranked #20 and company of three (the most recent of the three shows) ranked #4. However, in January 1983, NBC aired Super Bowl XVII and when it was over, they used that large audience to show the first episode of a new drama series of entitled action The A-teamwhich starred Mr. T as BA Baracus.

The A-team caused a stir and finished his first season #10 overall, dropping Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley to #28 and #25, respectively (Laverne and Shirley had lost Shirley star Cindy Williams for that season). company of three held strong at No. 6. So ABC luckily ended Laverne and Shirley (essentially just Laverne at this point) and decided to move Happy Days at 8:30 a.m. (while bringing back stars Erin Moran and Scott Baio, who left the show for a failed spin-off, Joanie likes Chachi. The return did not go very well) and present a new sitcom designed to compete The A-team through a diverse sitcom featuring a charming black guy alongside a white guy. This sitcom was just our luck and… oh boy, it didn’t work.


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The notion of just our luck was basically updating I dream of Jeannie, except this time, the genie is a trendy young black guy played by the very talented TK Carter. The late Richard Gilliland played a TV weatherman who acquired the bottle with Carter’s genie (Shabu) by accidentally breaking it (thus having to buy it). When this later broke out in his apartment, Shabu was freed and the two were somehow stuck with each other now.

ABC was really excited about the show, but as soon as it was announced it drew criticism because of all the vagueness of having a black person as a “slave” to a white “master”. Carter tried to defend him at the time, arguing, “Shabu doesn’t have a master because he doesn’t believe in masters…I made it clear that I won’t be doing this jive routine, acting like a cat in a black El Dorado, drinking a Kool-Aid daiquiri with a hat the size of a house… When Shabu comes out of the bottle, he’s wearing a Bill Blass raw silk suit, lots of jewelry and stuff. “


The NAACP threatened to boycott the advertisers who sponsored the show, with Beverly Hills-Hollywood NAACP chief Willis Edwards calling Shabu “an embarrassing and demeaning portrayal of a black man in the ’80s”. In the end, ABC relented and gave the NAACP some creative control of the show, and among the changes they made was to make sure no one used the term “master.” or “slave” and that the show adds black writers to its writing. staff and cast another black character on the show, with Leonard Simon joining the show as an anchor (Gilliland’s character becoming a traveling reporter instead).


The changes came too late, and the show was canceled after 12 episodes (the 13th episode, though produced, never aired). Damage was also done to the rest of ABC’s Tuesday night schedule, with Happy Days dropping to #63, where it was also canceled, and Three’s Company dropping to #33 (rather than canceling it, the network just relaunched it as Three is a crowdwhich then also flopped). The A-teamby the way, rose to 4th place overall (if you can console yourself, The A-team didn’t have a very long run for a show that was in the top ten its first three seasons. It dropped to No. 30 in Season 4, then moved to Fridays where it dropped to No. 61 and was canceled. It didn’t even reach 100 episodes).

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Be sure to check my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends from the world of television.

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