The Trajectory's of TV's TGIF
The show that for all intents and purposes launched what would become TGIF several years later was an unlikely fit for the family sitcoms that would define the evening, and that was the long-running political comedy "Benson" starring Robert Guillaume. Despite lasting seven seasons, "Benson" was never a hit, but rather functionally useful counterprogramming for ABC in tough timeslots. By 1982, that timeslot would be Friday nights against CBS's ratings powerhouse "The Dukes of Hazzard" right at the moment that series was starting to decline. It would have been hard to imagine that ABC's counterprogramming of "Benson" against "The Dukes of Hazzard" in 1982 would ever bring about what became TGIF, but it kind of did.
While "Benson" didn't fit the mold of TGIF-style shows, it was the lead-in for a new series in 1983 that fit the template perfectly--"Webster"--and "Webster" became an early hit, dragging lead-in "Benson" along for the ride and combined they won the timeslot against "The Dukes of Hazzard". But there was still a long way to go before the TGIF branding would take its form.
Even with "The Dukes of Hazzard" collapsing in the mid-80s and ultimately expiring in the spring of 1985, CBS still dominated Friday nights and it slowed ABC's transition to a two-hour comedy block despite the ongoing success of "Benson" and "Webster" at the 7:00 hour. ABC continued to program action shows like "Masquerade", "Hawaiian Heat", and "Street Hawk" at 8:00 as counterprogramming against "Dallas", but buckled in March 1985 and took on "Dallas" with its sitcom block, moving "Benson" to 8:00 and heading the night with "Webster", rounding out the hours with the short-lived sitcom "Off the Rack" at 8:30 and the much more successful "Mr. Belvedere" at 7:30. The move was met with mixed results but ABC had another iron in its fire with their fall lineup in 1985.....
NBC was poised to cancel veteran sitcom "Different Strokes" in 1985 but ABC picked it up, moving it to Friday night as a tentpole at the 8:00 hour scheduled in between "Webster", "Mr. Belvedere", and "Benson". The network had by now compiled a lineup that looked very much like the TGIF tradition even though it would be nearly five years before the TGIF designation became official. Unfortunately, "Different Strokes" bombed on Friday nights against "Dallas". "Webster" and "Mr. Belvedere" were hanging in there at the 7:00 hour with middling numbers, but all evidence pointed to ABC taking on CBS just a little too soon with their sitcom lineup to be effective.
The next two seasons were very challenging for the network and its fast-changing Friday comedy lineup. The ratings continued to drop for "Webster" and "Mr. Belvedere" and by the spring of 1987 "Webster" was canceled by ABC (it continued in syndication for one more season). "Mr. Belvedere" hung on by a thread and returned in October 1987 as the lone haggard veteran of a Friday lineup full of rookie sitcoms. Two of them, "I Married Dora" and "The Pursuit of Happiness" were flops that barely made it to Christmas, but the show ABC was most excited about kicked off the 7:00 hour and hung around despite bad early ratings.....the future sitcom smash "Full House".
With CBS and NBC duking it out with ratings heavy hitters "Dallas" and "Miami Vice", ABC was struggling mightily and reconfiguring their low-rated sitcom lineup every few weeks until the scheduling coup that revived the patient's pulse was made in March 1988....when successful Wednesday sitcom "Perfect Strangers" moved to Friday night to head up the comedy lineup. Almost immediately, ratings perked up for the entire lineup, and just in time to help "Full House" and "Mr. Belvedere" avoid likely cancellation.
The aforementioned trio, along with newcomer "Just the Ten of Us", finally became a consistent ratings force by the fall of 1988. The risk paid off as "Perfect Strangers" held its former Wednesday night audience and introduced enough viewers to lead-out "Full House" that its ratings skyrocketed that season, so much so that in the fall of 1989, ABC pushed "Full House" to the top of the Friday night schedule at 7:00. "Mr. Belvedere" was shuffled off to its Saturday night graveyard that fall and replaced with another new show that would define TGIF for years to come--"Family Matters". There was nothing memorable about the earliest incarnation of "Family Matters" as it was about as generic of a sitcom as was ever created until midseason when geeky neighbor kid Steve Urkel was introduced and became a cultural phenomenon and the biggest "star" in the duration of TGIF.
Urkel's arrival coincided almost perfectly with ABC's decision to market this Friday night sitcom bloc as TGIF, which was introduced in February 1990. The network had finally found the right mix of shows and the right marketing technique to capture lightning in a bottle. Somewhat surprisingly, and perhaps because it was racier than the other kid-friendly shows on the lineup, "Just the Ten of Us" was canceled in the spring of 1990. Its replacement in the fall of 1990, the Heather Locklear sitcom "Going Places", also seemed an odd fit for the TGIF lineup but would eventually be shoehorned to fit the TGIF mold. And while "Going Places" was the weak link, the rest of the TGIF lineup was soaring in the 1990-91 season, far and away the most successful year the lineup had. In March 1991, "Going Places" was replaced by the lackluster "Baby Talk", a sitcom that went through three different actresses playing the mother in two seasons, but ratings were nonetheless gangbusters. In the spring of 1991, all four TGIF sitcoms were mainstays in the Nielsen top-25, with "Full House" and "Family Matters" frequently in the top-10. But it would be a short stay at the top of the world....
ABC decided to spread the wealth in the fall of 1991 and moved "Full House" to Tuesday night. It was a successful move for both "Full House" and ABC's Tuesday night, but TGIF suffered for it. "Family Matters" now headed the lineup and Urkelmania proved past its peak. While "Family Matters" hung on in the top-25, its halcyon days were soon over without the assist from "Full House" (and I must confess I never got the appeal of "Full House" and didn't miss it at all when it bolted from TGIF). Replacing "Full House" was another show perfectly fitting the TGIF mold, the Patrick Duffy-Suzanne Somers sitcom "Step by Step", which would be a long-running mainstay on TGIF but nonetheless represented a certain past-peak aura for the franchise. "Perfect Strangers" was tiring and in its final season, and ratings for TGIF dropped pretty dramatically over the duration of the 1991-92 season. I was in eighth grade at the time and found that my tastes were maturing as the TGIF lineup was dumbing down. The "event" feel that was there for TGIF the previous two seasons just wasn't there anymore.
It faded further for me in 1992, when "Perfect Strangers" ended. I never got into "Dinosaurs" too consistently and the revolving door of shows that came and went in the 8:00 hour ("Camp Wilder", "Getting By", "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper") never grabbed me either. All that was left to hang my hat on was "Family Matters" and "Step by Step" in the 7:00 hour and those were fading as well, both in terms of quality and audience size. TGIF nonetheless produced one more long-running semihit that premiered in the fall of 1993..."Boy Meets World"....which lasted an impressive seven seasons where it put the entire TGIF franchise to sleep in the year 2000. Not sure whether the show genuinely sucked or whether I had simply outgrown this kind of show by that point, but "Boy Meets World" never did it for me. And by the spring of 1994, I finally ended my Friday night tradition of watching at least one hour per week of ABC's TGIF lineup.
But with or without me, the lineup went on into the mid-90s with "Family Matters", "Step by Step", and "Boy Meets World" continuing as mainstays and "Sister, Sister" and "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" going along for the ride in some capacity for a few more years. One final modest hit was added to the lineup in 1996 with Melissa Joan Hart as "Sabrina the Teenage Witch", a show I probably watched more than any other TGIF show in the second half of the 90s, but mostly just for Melissa and often with the mute button on! But the TGIF world got shook up like never before in 1997 when ABC canceled "Family Matters" and "Step by Step", believing they were burned out. But CBS saw an opening and picked both shows up, directly challenging what was left of ABC's TGIF lineup (anchored by "Sabrina" and "Boy Meets World"). The CBS challenge proved ineffective though as "Family Matters" and "Step by Step" flopped on CBS and were canceled in 1998.
In 1998, the CBS challenge was behind ABC and they had TGIF turf to themselves for a couple years before the death spiral. They even revived the now mid-teen Olsen twins for a sitcom called "Two of a Kind" that only lasted one season. The TGIF branding stuck around for two more seasons until "Boy Meets World" and "Sabrina" both went of the air in 2000. ABC returned with sitcoms that fall but ditched the TGIF branding and went for an older audience. After more than a decade, the official TGIF promotional coup had ended, probably outlasting the expectations of most. There's been a half-hearted revival of the format in recent years with Tim Allen and Reba McEntire sitcoms airing Friday evenings, but they haven't made much headway in restoring the TGIF brand, which is likely dead at least until sitcoms are en vogue again with television audiences.
You can't blame the network for unearthing the TGIF time capsule though as there was something oddly special about that snapshot in time when a mostly silly grouping of sitcoms was successfully sold to younger-skewing TV viewers and turned into ratings gold. And since I happened to come of age at the pinnacle of TGIF mania in 1990 and 1991, I have more nostalgia for it than most. Most of these shows would be pretty terrible revisiting as an adult, but I'm sure even now I could still identify that touch of charm that endeared me and millions of my contemporaries to these shows a quarter century ago.