Despite a shaky start 19 years ago, ABC's newsmagazine show issued a challenge to ''60 Minutes''

By Dan Snierson
Updated June 06, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

The newsmagazine explosion didn’t begin with a bang — it began with dead bunnies.

Trying to loosen 60 Minutes‘ stranglehold on the genre, ABC unveiled its challenger, 20/20, on June 6, 1978, with unsightly results. Two journalists with virtually no TV experience — TIME critic Robert Hughes and former Esquire editor Harold Hayes — fumbled as hosts. The show assaulted viewers with stylized editing and esoteric info-nuggets. And, yes, the lead story was a long segment on rabbit abuse at greyhound racetracks, reported with the jacked-up urgency of a nuclear-war threat.

The New York Times called the show ”dizzyingly absurd,” while The Washington Post declared it ”the trashiest stab at candycane journalism yet.” ABC News chief Roone Arledge himself was far from pleased. ”I looked at a tape of it the next night,” he recalls, ”and I said, ‘Either we change this or take it off.”’ So the gimmicky elements were promptly jettisoned — along with one-night stands Hayes and Hughes. Arledge then signed Today show alum Hugh Downs to anchor solo; in 1984, he was joined by Barbara Walters.

Within a few months of the debut debacle, 20/20 slowly began to distinguish itself with dogged reporting on health issues and A-list profiles. It paved the way for other newsmags like PrimeTime Live and Dateline NBC by proving that the genre could survive in the later reaches of prime time. (A top 25 show since the 1991-92 season, 20/20 will expand this fall, to air Thursdays and Fridays.) And the lesson to be learned from the former flop? ”If you look at something and you see that it’s wrong,” chuckles Arledge, ”just fix it.”

JUNE 6, 1978

Moviegoers say Thank God It’s Friday and boogie down to take in the disco film, which establishes Debra Winger’s film career. Screenwriter Armyan Bernstein will go on to exec-produce 1991’s music-filled The Commitments and produce this summer’s upcoming Air Force One.

Laverne and Shirley — which ABC’s Fred Silverman would liken to the satire of 17th-century French playwright Moliere — tops the ratings for its third chart-busting season. Within two years L&S would drop out of Nielsen’s top 25 altogether, never again to crack the top 15.

Grease is the Word as John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s hit from the movie (left) ”You’re the One That I Want,” bounces over the airwaves.

And in the real world: California’s tax-slashing Proposition 13 passes; the measure would help residents’ state and local taxes come down more than 26 percent over the next 15 years.