He Changed TV
A look at the incomparable legacy of Aaron Spelling
By David Bianculli -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/9/2006 8:00:00 PM
Aaron Spelling produced successful TV series in five different decades, an amazing enough accomplishment in the wildly churning waters of cutthroat network television. More amazing still was Spelling's timing: Like a clutch pinch-hitter coming to the plate in extra innings, he managed to deliver hits just when his club needed them most.
He died at 83 on June 23 from complications arising from a stroke the week before. He left behind an incredible legacy. In fact, he is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as he most prolific primetime producer in history, and his $48 million, 56,000-square-foot Los Angeles estate gives a sense of his oversized wealth. But critics called him the “king of trash TV,” and those criticisms stung him.
Spelling, who shifted very early from acting and scriptwriting to producing, cut his TV-producer teeth on Zane Grey Theater in 1956. For Four Star Studio Productions in the early 1960s, he generated such stylish series as Burke's Law and Honey West. Setting off on his own, he struck gold with ABC's The Mod Squad. The cop show about hippie types going undercover as law-enforcement officers managed to straddle the ever widening generation gap when it premiered in the volatile year of 1968. Its story of three young heroes (“One white, one black, one blonde”) gave young viewers stars their own age, such as Peggy Lipton, while placating older viewers with traditional stories and moral messages.
Appealing to polar audiences—young and old, together or separately—would become Spelling's stock in trade. So would shows like Dynasty that depicted the over-the-top lives of the very rich. When ABC was a laughably distant third in the Nielsen ratings behind CBS and NBC, Spelling's law-and-order shows in the mid '60s—S.W.A.T., Starsky & Hutch, The Rookies—pointed the way out. He developed one of TV's few durable family dramas, Family, in 1976, but no accomplishment that year had as much impact as Charlie's Angels.
The show not only launched Farrah Fawcett as an instant international phenomenon but sent ABC into the stratosphere as well. Charlie's Angels initiated the era that Paul Klein, rival programmer at NBC at that time, called “jiggle TV.”
It worked, and it wasn't Spelling's only trick. He not only made new stars but hired mature ones in guest roles, crafting huge hits out of Fantasy Island and The Love Boat in 1977. ABC vaulted to No. 1 and used Spelling so often that ABC, well into the '80s with such hits as Hart to Hart, Dynasty and T.J. Hooker, was known as the Aaron Broadcasting Company.
In 1990, Spelling stepped up to bat for a new team: Fox, which, like ABC a generation before, was tying its fortunes to being able to reach a younger demographic. Spelling's home runs for Fox included Beverly Hills, 90210, which made a star of his daughter, Tori Spelling, as well as other young, sexy actors. 90210 became a huge hit during the summer, when high school and college students were home to embrace it; spinoff Melrose Place became a success when Spelling recruited one of his former Dynasty stars, Heather Locklear, to come aboard. Spelling, it seemed, not only knew what worked but knew who did, too.
And when an even younger network, aiming for even younger viewers, was launched in 1996, it was a show from Aaron Spelling's shop—7th Heaven, a family drama in the same genre as his Family—that gave The WB its first hit. It proved so durable a show that, after 10 years on the air, it had outlasted not only Spelling but was destined to outlive The WB itself and move to the upcoming CW network after a surprise 11th-season renewal.
Spelling had one final WB success in Charmed, which launched with Shannon Doherty from 90210. The biggest star he made over his half-century career, though, was Fawcett, with Locklear an easy second. The biggest star he rediscovered? That's easy: Joan Collins on Dynasty, who didn't even join the show until its second season—which was precisely when it took off.
On the business side, Spelling made not stars but constellations and was instrumental in putting ABC, Fox and The WB onto Hollywood's celestial maps.
Although Spelling was an undeniable, unashamed populist, he also presented some fare, over the decades, of which he was, and deserved to be, inordinately proud for reasons of quality rather than just popularity. In the mid '70s, when the made-for-TV movie was just getting established, Spelling showcased a young John Travolta in 1976's The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and Linda Purl in a hugely popular cautionary tale about teen runaways lured into prostitution, 1976's Little Ladies of the Night.
And in 1993, having already improved the fortunes of ABC and Fox, Spelling moved over to HBO and was one of the first producers to give that network a prestige special-event movie, with the landmark, influential AIDS drama And the Band Played On. In the current era of television, it's a given that cable, not broadcast, networks will present big stars in big made-for-TV movies and miniseries. There again, as in so many times and at so many networks, Aaron Spelling was there first, swinging for the fences—and winning.
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