Teletubbies, teleschmubbies — the real controversy in children’s television ought to be the way ABC and CBS have screwed up Friday nights for kids. For years, the Alphabet provided a haven of pretty good programming with its so-called ”TGIF” schedule, which at various points included Full House (showbiz birthplace of the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley), Family Matters (the show that brought us Jaleel White’s blessedly unique comic creation, Steve Urkel), Boy Meets World (since 1993, a cozy place for Fred Savage’s cute brother Ben to grow up into a strikingly goofy adolescent), and Step by Step (the early-retirement home for Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy, as well as budding teen idol Sasha Mitchell, whose career was derailed when he pled no contest to a real-life spousal-abuse charge).
Doesn’t sound like much of a golden age, does it? Yet that two-hour block of sitcoms did have its charms. It offered good clean fun for the kiddies, paid off in the ratings, and in 1996, introduced the best TGIF show ever, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, starring the charming-and-gee-she-can-act-too Melissa Joan Hart, formerly of Nickelodeon’s beloved Clarissa Explains It All.
It was only a matter of time before the heavy hand of network competition ruined almost everything. First, CBS got the idea of starting its own Friday youth slate and did it by snatching Family Matters and Step by Step from ABC. To fill out its two hours, CBS added a couple of new shows, Meego, a dreadful showcase for Bronson Pinchot’s antics as an alien, and The Gregory Hines Show, a warm, comparatively quiet series created around the well-known dancer/actor playing a single dad.
CBS’ strategy quickly flopped. The network apparently didn’t notice that Matters and Step were past their prime, already fading in the ratings for ABC; plus, Meego was a stinker, and the genteel tone of Gregory Hines’ show was out of place among the other raucous fare. Meanwhile, ABC plugged its TGIF holes with You Wish, an abysmal botch about a young genie, and Teen Angel, a perfectly good show whose title character — a dead boy who descends from heaven to pal around with his high school chums — was played by the engaging, quick ad-libber Mike Damus.
But ABC’s schedule fared only a bit better than CBS’ — these goony networks were fighting for the same audience in a game of divide-and-not-conquer. CBS yanked Meego (yay); ABC pulled Teen Angel (boo — that show coulda been a contender). So what are children who used to build their lonely little Friday nights around TGIF now compelled to watch? Well, CBS has offered them junky blooper-style shows like Bill Cosby’s updating of Kids Say the Darndest Things and a new Candid Camera, cohosted by Allen Funt’s wooden son Peter and — whoops! there she is again — Suzanne Somers.
ABC, once the class act on this night, is now kids’ biggest insulter: For months now, the network has filled its two hours by programming one new episode of Sabrina and a rerun of it, plus a new Boy Meets World and an old Boy. The network is sending out a clear message: Ahh, those li’l ankle-biters will watch anything. I’m waiting for a new yellow-background ad campaign: ”TV Is Arrogant.”
Their network’s callousness aside, though, both Sabrina and Boy Meets World have turned into interesting little shows. No place except the teen magazines seems to have noticed that Boy has yielded a talented heartthrob in Rider Strong (excellent showbiz name, kid), who plays Ben Savage’s pal Shawn. Shawn and Savage’s Cory play off each other like an old odd-couple comedy team, arguing and ragging on each other — nothing jaded adults haven’t seen, but well-done amusement for a kid audience.
As for Sabrina, its season finale this week finds the girl with Salem, the talking cat, torn between two guys — good old familiar Harvey (Nate Richert) and a new fellow in town, Dash (Donald Faison), who, like Sabrina, is half witch, half human. (He’s also African-American, something that’s never mentioned; a casual, funny, interracial romance is one of ABC’s few concessions to progressivism on this night.)
While real teenagers watch Dawson’s Creek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer and identify madly with angst and insecurity, children yearning to become teenagers watch Sabrina and fantasize — about a light, frothy adolescence, in which a life lived with two understanding witch aunts (Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick) is a breeze, a lark, a choice between two good-lookin’ guys. Plus, if you were Sabrina, you could conjure up an evening of better entertainment than anything TV now offers you on Friday nights. B-