One a fizzy, provocative farce, the other a family-values dramedy — Three’s Company and Eight Is Enough could hardly have been more different, yet they had a lot in common. Both were instant hits masterminded by ABC programming whiz Fred Silverman, and both premiered March 15, 1977, a hallowed date in the annals of TV nostalgia.
Satisfying critics and viewers alike, the warm and cozy Eight Is Enough starred amiable Dick Van Patten as a California newsman with a brood of eight. Married, then widowed, then remarried, Van Patten’s Tom Bradford was a less idealized version of the traditional TV dad, often mishandling some family crisis before restoring household harmony. To a generation of divorced parents and latchkey children, the show’s blissful domestic normalcy soothed. ”People see the Bradfords and wish their own family were as happy,” said the show’s producer, Bob Jacks.
Three’s Company appealed to a different kind of wishful thinking. Revolving around three thirtysomething roommates, it starred Joyce DeWitt as sensible Janet, Suzanne Somers as ditsy Chrissy, and John Ritter as girl-crazy Jack, who pretended to be gay to keep their landlord (Norman Fell) from suspecting hanky-panky. Not that any of them ever slept together. ”Nothing ever happened on Three’s Company,” recalls Silverman. ”It was innuendo, left to the imagination.” Still, the inevitable appearance of Somers in a bikini or baby-doll earned the show a place alongside Charlie’s Angels as ”jiggle television.”
Audiences didn’t mind. Three’s Company spent most of its seven-year run in the top 10, surviving critics’ pans, religious groups’ protests, and even Somers’ departure, in a contract dispute, in 1981. (Currently, only Three’s Company is in syndication, on TBS.)
Indeed, both Eight Is Enough (canceled in 1981) and Three’s Company would outlast Silverman at ABC. After triumphing at CBS and turning around the perennially third-ranked ABC, Silverman was TV’s can’t-miss conquering hero. He left ABC in 1978 for NBC, but up against two powerhouse lineups — largely his own work — Silverman ran out of magic; he was gone from NBC by 1981.
Now an independent television producer (Matlock, In the Heat of the Night), the once controversial Silverman is relatively conservative by today’s standards. ”Today, if you tune in Friends, [the characters are] graphically talking about the sex they had last night — and it’s playing at 8 o’clock,” he says. ”I think Three’s Company was a lot more innocent.”