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An Idea Whose Time Has Come...Again

ABC's "T.G.I.F." family block is worth reviving in today's fragmented TV landscape 2/29/2008 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Television is busy this season reviving individual TV shows from past decades, hoping for lightning to strike quickly with remakes of Bionic Woman, American Gladiator and Knight Rider—and that's just on NBC. Some of those efforts would be better served reviving an entire programming concept: T.G.I.F.

Indulge me for minute—I have proof.

T.G.I.F. was ABC's attempt, on a low-viewership night of television, to aim at a different demographic and do something a little different. In 1988, the year of the previous writers' strike, ABC packaged four wholesome family sitcoms under the umbrella title T.G.I.F., for “Thank Goodness It's Friday” (no blasphemy in this acronym, for God's sake).

The opening lineup was Perfect Strangers, Full House, Mr. Belvedere and Just the Ten of Us. For more than a decade, the two-hour T.G.I.F. family block drew loyal audiences on Friday nights, eventually including such shows as Family Matters, Dinosaurs, Boy Meets World and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

Most of these shows, other than Dinosaurs and perhaps Perfect Strangers, were painfully formulaic and sappy—but that's from the perspective of adult, critical eyes. Kids gobbled these shows up, and often got their families to sit still and watch with them. In an increasingly fragmented TV universe, T.G.I.F. may have been one of the last times when families scheduled appointment viewing together, in front of the same TV set.

For a decade now, I've been team-teaching a course on TV History and Appreciation at Rowan University in New Jersey. My fellow teachers may be quite familiar to veteran B&C readers: Mike Donovan was a longtime director of marketing for NATPE, and George Back, in his days as president of All American Television, syndicated a little show called Baywatch worldwide.

Anyway, our first assignment to our college students each term is to ask them to describe their first significant primetime TV viewing experience—the first nighttime show they loved, and why. We also ask them to describe where, and how, and with whom they watched.

These young adults, age 20 or so, are now squarely in thrall of the T.G.I.F. years. Their passion is so pure and widespread, it's clear that ABC let slip an entire generation of loyal viewers, now grown into the exact demo they're so desperate to reach. Some sample testimony, from this term's papers:

“T.G.I.F. is part of my generation's pop-culture history. It is something I can talk to any of my friends about, or any kid who grew up at the same time I did, and they can jump right into a conversation with me.”

“We watched it in the family room and my mom, dad, brother and sister sat on the couches, while I sat on the floor with a blanket and my stuffed elephant.”

“My family always ordered in, or did take-out, so we would sit and watch T.G.I.F. and wait for the food to arrive.”

“Every Friday night my family would get together in the living room, my father always in his (and I mean his) recliner…”

“My brothers and I fought over everything, but we all agreed on watching T.G.I.F.”

“My mother often watched the entire lineup with me…”

“What happened to good ole T.G.I.F.? It always drew our family together on Friday nights.”

“The best word I could use to describe how it felt to watch Family Matters each week is cozy.”

That's the sort of brand loyalty you just can't find anymore, outside of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. But where Hannah Montana and High School Musical are keeping things all in the Disney-ABC family, broadcast TV is losing out—and losing an opportunity to lure the next generation of viewers while providing families a reason to watch television together.

American Idol may serve that function today, but what else does? In paper after paper, students wrote of how Friday nights were special—a later bedtime, no homework, the end of a work week for their parents—and that the two-hour block of family sitcoms on ABC became a welcome, reliable family ritual.

Surely, when the current crop of Friday shows in the first two hours of primetime includes same-week reruns, quiz shows and other filler, there's room to test the validity of a revived T.G.I.F. or its equivalent. Cast some of the former child actors as parents this time around, and today's young adults, just starting families themselves, might be very inclined to gather their own offspring and continue their cherished TV traditions.

Think of it as “T.G.I.F.: The Next Generation.” 

David Bianculli is TV critic and guest host for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and teaches television history at New Jersey’s Rowan University. He is the resident critic and blogger forThe BC Review, and offers nightly viewing recommendations and observations on his Website,www.tvworthwatching.com.

 

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