Just as the medium hit its stride, we had to learn a whole new vocabulary. Can you say CNN, MTV, and VCR?

By Jamie Malanowski
Updated February 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The ironic truth about TV in the ’80s: while the Broadcast networks were producing some of the best programs in the history of the medium, commercial and technological forces were conspiring to dilute their powerful cultural clout. In other words, just when it seemed that the networks had figured out what they were doing, they discovered they no longer had the only candy stores on the block.

What would become three of the most powerful brand names in broadcasting — MTV, CNN, and ESPN — grew up in the ’80s. The prospects of an all-anything channel seemed laughable back then. There were perfectly good ways to get the news; you certainly didn’t need 24 hours of it. And what the heck were you supposed to do with a music video? You listened to music, muttonhead, you didn’t watch it!

Of course, the history of the medium — not to mention the human race — is the story of people figuring out they couldn’t live without what they never knew they wanted. Not only did cable channels prosper, but they quickly begat companions, imitators, and competitors, creating a veritable blizzard of programming that was almost too much to watch…unless you could adjust the schedule to your convenience.

Which is where that nifty videocassette recorder came in. The VCR allowed viewers to manage and organize and control all these programs to maximize viewing pleasure (not to mention the power to build vast film libraries and freeze-frame the nudity!). Karl Marx, describing the Communist utopia, said a man could be a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, a cattle rancher in the evening, and a critic after dinner. Well, in the nascent TV utopia of the ’80s, people could certainly watch shows on all those subjects, along with Atlanta Braves baseball and Flock of Seagulls videos any time they wanted. (Marx might have appreciated being able to zap the commercials.)

Of course, it wasn’t as though people stopped watching broadcast TV. The networks thrived, and the shows that were most popular (Dallas, Dynasty, L.A. Law, Family Ties, even The Cosby Show) reflected the ’80’s sunny and lavish Reagan-era mores. But a counterpoint was growing in shows about those coping with budget cuts and downsizing — Roseanne‘s working class, Hill Street Blues‘ middle-level management, thirtysomething‘s unfulfilled yuppies. In these, most of which enjoyed greater critical than popular success, we can see the seeds of the gritty, antifamily paranoia that would characterize the hits of the next decade.

March 21, 1980
When the popular CBS soap closed out its second season with the fiendish J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) taking two slugs from an unseen gunman, the series stepped up from prime-time hit to worldwide obsession. The show made the covers of such magazines as TIME and PEOPLE, and ”Who shot J.R.?” was the slogan of choice on T-shirts and bumper stickers. It even inspired a hit song. The November resolution — eight months coming thanks to an actors’ strike — drew a record 83 million viewers (surpassed only by M*A*S*H‘s series finale in 1983). Thanks to several decoy endings, even Dallas‘ stars were surprised by the shooter (Kristin, the ex-prostitute). Make that most of the stars. ”I figured it out before it aired,” says Hagman, who didn’t play the omnipotent Ewing for nothing. The success of J.R.’s plight made the cliff-hanger a standard TV device and inspired a passel of decade-defining greed-fests such as Dynasty and Falcon Crest. Rank 3

Feb. 22 1980
ABC’s Al Michaels remembers the noise: ”When it gets loud enough, sound has a feel. That’s what I remember: feeling the sound over the last minute of that game.” When the U.S. hockey team beat the heavily favored Soviets in the 1980 Olympics, an entire nation felt it. Until then, the country had little to shout about: The hostages were in Iran, the Soviets were in Afghanistan, and the recession was in full swing. So when Mike Eruzione’s wrist shot late in the game gave the Americans a 4-3 lead, the chant of ”USA! USA!” rattled living rooms across the country. Minutes later, Michaels closed the broadcast with his classic call: ”Do you believe in miracles?!” Says Michaels today: ”You didn’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate this — it transcended sports.” Rank 40

March 24, 1980
Talk about silver linings. After terrorists seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in ’79, ABC News began airing special late-night reports titled The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage. Giving viewers deeper, daily coverage was a novel concept in a pre-CNN age. ”Nobody had used satellites to do simultaneous interviews with people in different countries,” says Ted Koppel, who took over when host Frank Reynolds left to cover the 1980 presidential primaries. After the hostage crisis was resolved in ’81, ABC continued its current events forum. Two decades later, Nightline regularly tops Leno and Letterman in the ratings. ”I wake up and say, ‘What’s the most interesting thing in the world today?’ says Koppel. ”Then we throw a lot of ABC’s money at it.” Rank 63

May 17, 1980
Call it anarchy in the U.S. Seeing Public Image Ltd., the noise-rock band led by ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon, performing on ABC’s Saturday sock hop was disorienting enough. But then Lydon sneeringly dispensed with the de rigueur lip-synching, and later mugged his way through a chat with host Dick Clark. ”It’s taken on a life of its own in later years,” says Clark. No wonder: For PIL fans, the gig represented punk’s acceptance by — and subversion of — mainstream pop. Given Clark’s 23 years of (in his words) ”screw[ing] the system from within,” we should’ve known it was planned. Lydon ”told me he was going to be rambunctious. I said, ‘Be my guest,”’ says Clark. ”We were in total control.” Rank 92

Jan. 15, 1981
”Cop shows had pretty much been ‘There’s a crime, a little run-and-jump, and at the end of the hour, you catch the guy,”’ says Steven Bochco, who with Michael Kozoll created the 1981-87 NBC drama. Hill Street broke all those rules — it was a boisterous ensemble drama about imperfect heroes who tried (and often failed) to uphold the law while holding their messy lives together. With gritty realism and an innovative open-ended narrative style that wove multiple story lines together, Hill Street paved the way for modern tele-vérité dramas NYPD Blue, Homicide, and ER. Rank 12

Aug. 1, 1981
Before hordes of hormone-addled postadolescents could embarrass themselves on Singled Out, before Claymation stars could dismember and maim each other on Celebrity Deathmatch, before Tabitha Soren could field the question ”Boxers or briefs?” for Bill Clinton…there were the Buggles. It was the clip for the novelty band’s jaunty 1979 tune ”Video Killed the Radio Star” that launched MTV and kicked off — at least ceremonially — a revolution in youth-oriented programming. From the start, it was clear that everything about the cable upstart — its kinetic style-over-substance aesthetic, its kicky irreverence, its edgy antiauthoritarian bent — was designed not just to attract young viewers but to empower them with a new identity. Suddenly, they weren’t just teenagers, they were the MTV generation. (Of course, the task was difficult in those early days, given the lack of any actual programming. ”When we went on the air,” says Tom Freston, chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, who at the time was head of marketing, ”we had 168 clips. And 30 of them were Rod Stewart.”) The fallout was dramatic. ”I want my MTV!” quickly graduated from promotional slogan to teen rallying cry. Movies and TV shows soon began copying the network’s quick-cut, impressionistic feel. Music began championing a new breed of rock star — video-friendly artists such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Duran Duran. It was a signal moment in pop-cultural history: For the first time, an entire generation could be defined not so much by their common beliefs but by the type of TV they watched. Rank 6

July 28, 1982
Kaufman’s comedy-as-performance-art ethos was on full display as he used Letterman to fuel his feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler. Appearing in a neck brace from a previous bout, Kaufman insulted Lawler, who slapped the comic. Kaufman swore, threw a cup of coffee at Lawler, and stalked off. Nonplussed, Letterman shifted a bit, then muttered, ”I’ll just be over here.” The memorable segment was the first in what would become a Letterman tradition: the public meltdown. ”We had no better guest than Andy Kaufman in those days,” Letterman said later. ”You never knew what he was going to do other than that it was going to be strange and exciting.” Rank 93

Jan. 19 and 26, 1983
The Reagan era’s definitive sitcom found its voice — and helped boost the careers of two future showbiz giants — with this first-season two-parter, which finds aspiring yuppie Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) disillusioned with capitalism after discovering that his Uncle Ned (a pre-Splash Tom Hanks) is a corporate embezzler. ”Tom was such an electrifying actor,” recalls Michael J. Weithorn, the episodes’ writer (now exec producer of The King of Queens), who suggested the Bosom Buddies vet to creator Gary David Goldberg. ”Michael always credited Tom with sending him to the next level of acting.” Rank 73

May 16, 1983
One small step for man, one giant glide for pop culture: Michael Jackson unveils his physics-defying ”moonwalk” during the song ”Billie Jean” and leaves even rocket scientists scratching their heads. “We spent hours in the editing room discussing every shot,” says Don Mischer, producer-director of the NBC special. ”He had a great sense of theater.” Rank 79

Jan. 17, 1984
Although videocassette recorders had been on the market since 1975, the real breakthrough for the accessory didn’t come until 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled that home taping did not violate copyright laws. The decision not only meant that John Doe wasn’t guilty of a crime when he recorded Scarecrow and Mrs. King for future viewing, but also that VCR manufacturers wouldn’t be liable to studios for royalties. That opened the floodgates: Companies rushed machines to stores, and prices plummeted. By December, sales had nearly doubled from the previous year. In the ensuing 15 years, the VCR would change how we use a television, freeing viewers to become their own programmers. ”People now pick and choose what they want to see,” Tim Stearns, a professor of business and broadcasting at the University of Wisconsin, said at the time. ”We’re in the age of the video jukebox.” How complete has the revolution been? In a 1996 MIT survey, 806 of 1,008 respondents named the VCR as the invention that made life easier for them. Rank 42

The quintessential ’80’s family sitcom debuts Sept., 20, 1984
Forget the patterned sweaters and the precocious kids. The Cosby Show‘s real legacy? The sitcom itself. ”You have to remember,” says Warren Littlefield, the NBC’s VP of comedy programming, ”there was only one sitcom in the top 10 the previous year — the genre was dead.” Faster than you can say Jell-O pudding, the Cos changed all that; in its first week on the air his show — which he infused with his stand-up tested, wholesome family shtick — landed in the No. 1 slot. The show was also unique in its depiction of an upscale African-American family: professional parents, well-adjusted children, affluent community. ”Right after [we taped] the first episode, I started going through our scheduling squares,” recalls Littlefield, whose network had so much faith in Cosby, it used the series to kick off what would become the peacock’s powerhouse Thursday-night lineup. ”We changed four nights around and put the show against [the CBS hit] Magnum, P.I.” Poor Magnum didn’t know what hit him. Rank 24

Spring 1984
Nothing encapsulates the media mastery of the Reagan presidency better than this feel-good reelection-campaign ad. Unlike other memorable political commercials — such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s unsettling anti-Barry Goldwater ”Daisy” campaign (which played on voters’ fear of nuclear war) and George Bush’s Willie Horton spot (which played on voters’ fear of crime) — Reagan’s pitch filled the screen with stereotypically wholesome Americans (including a guy painting a picket fence) as a narrator made such patriotic pronouncements as ”America is back with a sense of pride people thought we’d never feel again.” It looked like an orange juice spot, but its message was clear: Thanks to the Gipper, America was on the straight and narrow. ”When I showed the President the ad,” recalls Ed Rollins, Reagan’s campaign manager,” he just lit up. ‘That’s it!’ he said. ‘That’s exactly it!”’ The voters overwhelmingly agreed, as Reagan trounced Walter Mondale to win a second term. Rank 41

Sept. 27, 1984
NBC’s popular comedy was in the third of its 11 seasons when psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) first walked into Boston’s favorite saloon. Few could have known how long the shrink would stay. ”He was just a device to get Diane back to the bar,” says series cocreator Glen Charles. ”And then we couldn’t get rid of him.” Grammer’s comic precision raised the bar (so to speak) on what had already been one of the strongest ensembles in sitcom history. Later, the decision on who to spin off was a no-brainer: After all, by then, everybody knew his name. Rank 62

Oct. 12, 1985
The pop-art pasha’s arrival aboard the Royal Princess marked the ABC fluff-fest’s 200th episode, but the hour’s real milestone was in its stunt-casting genius: Playing himself, the rag-topped artist runs into a Midwestern housewife (wholesome Happy Days mom Marion Ross) who was once a member of his avant-garde entourage. Ross fondly remembers teasing her novice acting partner. ”I told [Warhol], ‘Oh, you’re such a terrible actor.’ He really needed to have his hand held.” Rank 95

Here’s a strange fact: Once upon a time, when viewers wanted to change the channel, they actually had to get off their big fat butts. Dark days indeed! The remote had been around as far back as 1950 (Zenith offered a device called ”Lazy Bones”), but it didn’t really click till we entered the multichannel cable era. Suddenly, what was once a luxury became a necessity: 1985 marked the first year when more sets were equipped with zappers than not. With that new phenomenon — dubbed ”channel surfing” — life changed forever: TV became faster (sound bites got shorter, cuts quicker), women found more reasons to resent men. Indeed, the remote helped shrink America’s attention span, which had vast and sinister implica…[click] ”Welcome back to E!’s Playmates of the ’80s.” Rank 18

Jan. 28, 1986
In the hours and days following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, news outlets repeatedly broadcast the sequence — the spacecraft headed heavenward, then a tiny flare, followed by flaming debris scarring the pale sky with errant smoke trails — as if the repetition would lessen the shock. For that moment, amid the disbelief, TV stood as unblinking witness. ”Just after the explosion, [astronaut Christa McAuliffe’s] mother looked sour, but her father looked confused,” remembers CNN exec Bob Furnad. ”Then he looked at her with a quizzical smile, then looked back at the explosion, and his face began to mirror hers. It was human drama, there in the pictures.” Rank 36

Jan. 29, 1986
The 1982-88 NBC drama had often dealt with AIDS, but when Mark Harmon’s bed-hopping surgeon became the first prime-time regular to contract the disease, it suddenly had a familiar face. (Harmon left the series two weeks later.) ”This wasn’t happening to someone who waltzed in for one episode,” says producer Tom Fontana. ”This was a guy everybody knew and cared about” It was a touch typical of TV’s most profoundly humane drama. Rank 72

Sept. 8, 1986
When Oprah’s local Chicago chat-fest debuted in syndication (with an hour on finding the perfect mate), the impact was immediate: A black woman in a white-male-dominated field had refashioned the modern talk format, pioneered by Phil Donahue, into high-tech group therapy. Subsequent shows revealed the Oprah touch. There she was empathizing with her predominantly female audience, dispensing hugs, shedding tears. What’s more, she made her own life an open book, revealing a past dalliance with cocaine and a pesky battle with the bulge (at the show’s outset, she weighed a hefty 180). The formula proved intoxicating — she not only shot to the top of the ratings but paved the way for every female yakker from Ricki to Rosie. ”It was the beginning of compassionate, honest television,” says Harpo Entertainment Group president Jeffrey Jacobs. ”Unlike anyone before her, she really shared herself with the audience, and that made all the difference.” Rank 15

Sept. 29, 1987
ABC’s ultimate yuppie drama was never a huge ratings success, but it was deeply influential in look (gloomy lighting) and narrative style (”a willingness to deal with feelings in an open way,” says cocreator Ed Zwick). The typically talky premiere followed a group of baby boomers through their discussions of marriage, parenthood, and careerism; pizza and wine were always at hand. ”Our lead characters,” says Zwick, ”were not considered noble. They were confused or depressed or anxious.” So blame them for mopey Gen-X soaps like Party of Five and Felicity. Rank 67

Feb. 21, 1988
Remember Michael Jordan? (He used to play basketball.) In this Nike spot — Jordan’s breakthrough commercial outing — he banters with fast-talking, worshipful Mars Blackmon, played by Spike Lee, who also directed the campaign’s 11 subsequent ads. Funny and slick, it set the standard for creative sneaker ads and launched His Airness’ career as the most successful celeb pitchman of our time. Says Jim Riswold, the spot’s copywriter: ”I remember Spike saying ‘You better start making more shoes ’cause you’re going to sell them all.”’ They did. Rank 68

May 11, 1988
She’d already chatted up everyone from Richard Pryor to the Shah of Iran, but Walters’ emotionally charged interview with Swayze — then at the peak of his Dirty Dancing fame — got to the heart of what makes her phenomenally popular ABC specials tick. When the unabashedly earnest Walters coaxed Swayze into opening up about his deceased dad, the actor couldn’t hold back the tears (”I made it my passion that I was going to make that man proud of me ’til I died.”), marking the first of many celeb bawl-fests to come. ”It wasn’t just sniff-sniff,” says Walters. ”He really broke down. That led to years of people saying to me ‘Please, don’t make me cry.”’ Rank 39

Nov. 3, 1988
Today’s topic: How Geraldo Rivera’s bloodied appendage rocked the TV world! When the ever-brash talker hosted white supremacists and black activist Roy Innis, the result was unprecedented bedlam: Guests exchanged punches, audience members stormed the set, and Rivera took a flying chair in the schnozz. ”It was absolutely horrifying,” shidders former Geraldo senior producer Delia Fine, now and A&E programming VP. ”I was yelling at the director to go to a wide shot, because I wanted to have a record for legal purposes, and dialing 911 at the same time.” The stepchild of Rivera’s row? Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! Rank 96

October 1989
Drummer aren’t known for their longevity (see Spi¨al Tap), but this one’s been going for nine years. The most memorable commercial mascot of our time caught America’s eye when he said ta-da to his own ad and rudely drummed through three others — dead-on parodies of coffee, sinus-remedy, and wine spots. The bunny has not only become an op-ed cliché (everyone from Bill Clinton to Saddam Hussein is compared to the durable pink guy) but has spawned an era of postmodern, self-aware advertising. As Bob Kuperman, the spots’ first creative director, says, ”he thumbed his nose at commercials people love to hate.” Rank 87

No. 1 Shows
1980 60 Minutes*
1981 Dallas
1982 Dallas
1983 60 Minutes
1984 Dallas
1985 Dynasty
1986 The Cosby Show
1987 The Cosby Show
1988 The Cosby Show
1989 Roseanne
*Seasons began the previous year