Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

Super Bowl: When Tie-In Novelty Cereals Ruled the 1980s

Louise McLaren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Louise McLaren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tidal wave of merchandising following the release of Star Wars in 1977 was a fundamental transformation in how pop culture could be monetized. Thousands of items, ranging from clothing to toys, were produced from dozens of licensees. Fans could wake up on Darth Vader bedsheets, brush their teeth with a Yoda toothbrush, and slip on a Chewbacca backpack before catching the school bus.

The lone exception to that escapist morning routine? Breakfast cereal. It wasn’t until 1984—seven years after the original Star Wars hit theaters—that fans could purchase C-3POs, a puffed-wheat breakfast concoction that featured the golden droid on boxes. The delay was the result of changing tastes in the realm of product licensing. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the major cereal companies figured out that people wanted to literally consume their entertainment.

 

Cereals have long relied on colorful characters as a way of marketing their wares. Tony the Tiger was introduced by Kellogg’s in 1951 and quickly became the solo mascot for Frosted Flakes after cohorts Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu, and Elmo the Elephant fell by the wayside. Store aisles were soon stocked with boxes bearing Toucan Sam (Fruit Loops); Snap, Crackle, and Pop (Rice Krispies); and the dubiously ranked Cap’n Crunch.

As the decades wore on, the characters became intergenerational, able to appeal to kids and adults who remembered them from their youth. But it was also hard to muscle in on the market with so many of those mascots dominating shelf space. It wasn’t until the 1980s that cereal makers took notice of census reports hinting at a growing population of kids under the age of 9 and began plotting ways to appeal to tiny, outstretched hands at grocery stores. Their solution was existing brand recognition. Why spend time and effort creating a new cereal mascot when they could effectively lease one with a built-in fan base?

General Mills, then and now one of the leading cereal manufacturers, owned toy company Kenner. Kenner, in turn, had a licensing deal with American Greetings, owners of the popular Strawberry Shortcake property. In September 1982, General Mills debuted a Strawberry Shortcake cereal, the first to be based on a licensed fictional character. To the great satisfaction of General Mills executives, it was a major success. Shortcake fans devoured it.

Quickly, General Mills pursued an E.T. cereal, based on the smash 1982 movie. Arriving in 1984, the company believed a sequel—which never materialized—would keep it flying off shelves. A Pac-Man cereal followed. When neither product managed to reach Shortcake-level success, General Mills stopped pursuing licenses in 1985. But that was hardly the end of tie-in corn puffs.

Ralston Purina, a conglomerate that counted both breakfast cereal and dog food among its offerings, was faced with only minimal market share when compared to the “Big Two” titans: General Mills and Kellogg’s. Because launching a brand-new cereal was such an expensive proposition—marketing costs could grow to $40 million during the first year alone—it made more sense for Ralston to capitalize on existing properties, where their expenditure might only be $10 to $12 million. Their first attempt was a sugary riff on Cabbage Patch Kids. Released in 1985—at the point in Cabbage Patch mania where adults were getting into physical altercations over the dolls—it sold well, and Ralston seemed to have found its niche.

 

The next few years would see a number of Ralston products hit stores. Cereals based on Donkey Kong, Spider-Man, Gremlins, Rainbow Brite, Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Batman made what would otherwise be generic cereals palatable to a youth demographic and had novelty beyond the brand associations. The company’s Nintendo Cereal System in 1989 had one box with two different bags of multi-colored cereal. Others, like Batman, came with super-sized prizes like a coin bank that was shrink-wrapped to the box. Never mind that many of the concoctions were almost identical—the Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cereal had pieces resembling Ralston’s Chex cereal relabeled “spider webs” or “ninja nets.” Fans of the properties ate it up.

Owing to their status as a tie-in product, these cereals had one fatal flaw: They typically sold well for just 14 to 18 months, whereas Tony the Tiger could keep moving flakes for decades. But by the time one cereal began to decline, another was ready to take its place. If Ralston’s Jetsons grew stale on shelves, Bill and Ted's Excellent Cereal was ready to go. The company found its most enduring tie-in with its marshmallow-stuffed Ghostbusters cereal, which remained a bestseller for an incredible five years running. (Propped up by an animated series and a 1989 sequel, it kept the property visible. C-3POs, in contrast, suffered from a lack of any new Star Wars movies after 1983.)

Not everyone could make the premise work. Quaker’s Mr. T cereal bombed. Ralston’s own Prince of Thieves cereal, an attempt to capitalize on 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves movie, was victimized by contractual limitations. Star Kevin Costner refused to appear on the box, diminishing the association.

 

Ralston continued the tie-ins into the 1990s, with the Family Matters-endorsed Urkel-Os joining cereals based on The Addams Family, Batman Returns, and others, usually paying a 3 to 5 percent royalty on each box sold to the licensors. While it made Ralston profitable, it also made them appealing for a buyout. To cement their status as cereal king, General Mills wound up buying Ralston in 1996 for $570 million. The deal largely put an end to the licensing promotions.

Today, there’s nostalgia for these edible gimmicks. Funko, the company behind the Pop! vinyl figures, maintains a line of themed cereals based on Pac-Man and less obvious properties like The Golden Girls. Unopened boxes of Batman cereal pop up on eBay from time to time. Some cereal loyalists even try to replicate the flavors, mixing Lucky Charms and Crispix to mimic the distinctively chalky taste of Spider-Man cereal. But for the most part, the industry has fallen back on the same standbys that were popular 70 years ago.

As one brand executive put it: Kellogg’s doesn’t need the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they’ve got Corn Flakes.

Overall Charm: Remembering Hasbro's My Buddy Doll

Kendrick Shackleford, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Kendrick Shackleford, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If your toy company's boy-oriented doll doesn’t set the world on fire, you might take comfort in the fact it partially inspired a series of slasher movies. That was the case for My Buddy, an oversized doll first introduced by Hasbro in 1985 that failed to make waves on store shelves but informed the creation of the carrot-topped spree killer doll Chucky in writer Don Mancini and director Tom Holland’s 1988 film Child’s Play.

In 1985, toy stores were stocked to the brim with some of the most indelible properties of the decade. Coleco’s Cabbage Patch Kids were a bona fide phenomenon, ringing up $540 million in sales the year prior. Masters of the Universe was Mattel’s hit, with both the action figures and ancillary products doubling the take of the Cabbage people.

Then there was My Buddy, which seemed to straddle the gender lines the other major toy companies had drawn. The Cabbage Patch dolls were highly desirable among young girls; boys gravitated toward the veiny, sword-wielding characters of the He-Man franchise. In marketing My Buddy, Hasbro hoped to pioneer a new toy category: a doll line for boys.

The idea was not totally alien to the market. As far back as the early 20th century, boys played with dolls regardless of whether the toys were marketed specifically toward them or not. The difference was that the dolls were often depicting adult men and women. As time went on and manufacturers began focusing on dolls resembling infants, interest on the part of young male consumers began to trail off.

Hasbro reversed that trend in 1964 with the introduction of G.I. Joe, a line of 12-inch, fabric-outfit military figures intended to do for boys what Mattel’s Barbie had done for the female demographic. Though Joe would go on to inhabit smaller, molded plastic sculpts in the 1980s, the idea of boys playing with plush toys was still of interest. With My Buddy, Hasbro banked on the doll’s heft—at an imposing 23 inches, it was a fair bit larger than the Cabbage Patch line—to ensnare juvenile consumers.

My Buddy was intended to be a companion for boys perceived as more active than girls, canvassing neighborhoods on Big Wheels, clutching My Buddy as they climbed into tree houses, and possibly making him an inadvertent object in a game of touch football. Clad in durable overalls, My Buddy seemed designed for extended trips through dirty terrain.

“My Buddy is positioned as macho,” Hasbro's senior vice president of marketing Stephen Schwartz told The Boston Globe in 1985. “It’s soft macho, but it’s still macho. We show them climbing up trees, riding their bikes. We didn’t position it like a girl doll, soft and sweet.”

Excited by the potential, Hasbro backed My Buddy with an effective ad campaign led by an infectious song:

Unlike other toys with complex personal narratives, My Buddy possessed no agency. He was simply there to accompany his human on adventures. Hasbro’s intent was easily discerned through ad copy: “A little boy’s special friend! Rough and tough, yet soft and cuddly.”

Amid a competitive toy year, the $25 My Buddy fared well in 1985. While Cabbage Patch Kids remained a goliath, Hasbro had four of the top 10 bestselling toys on the market: Transformers, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, and My Buddy, which ranked eighth on the list.

That success would not last. If boys did not find fault with playing with dolls, some adults did, expressing puzzlement that My Buddy would hold appeal for the blood-and-guts dominion of the boys toys market. Los Angeles Times columnist Bevis Hillier called My Buddy “an unprepossessing creature who also has overalls and freckles but has managed to get his cap on the right way round. With his big, goggling eyes, he is half winsome, half bruiser.” Hillier went on to express doubt that a boy would find the prospect of dressing the doll in his own retired baby clothes enticing.

My Buddy and his various offshoots—there was a Kid Sister—hung on for a few years before disappearing from shelves. The doll market for boys was mostly relegated to Wrestling Buddies, a line of WWE-themed stuffed companions that encouraged boys to drop elbows and grapple them to the floor. My Buddy, with his largely pacifistic persona, invited no such confrontations. Despite Hasbro’s hopes, My Buddy failed to signal a breakdown in gender-specific toys. Mattel’s She-Ra line, an action figure spin-off of He-Man targeted toward girls, failed to take off. My Pet Monster, a plush toy for boys, came and went.

Hasbro subsidiary Playskool continued manufacturing My Buddy into the 1990s. Today, the overall-clad figure is mostly remembered as a model for the murderous Chucky, the doll villain at the center of the Child's Play franchise.

While it never gained iconic status beyond being a horror movie influence, My Buddy did offer a bit of foreshadowing in how toy companies market to consumers based on gender. In 2017, the first male American Girl doll, Logan, was released. Not long after, Mattel ran ads depicting boys playing with a Barbie Dream House and girls with Hot Wheels. My Buddy may not have been a raging success, but its attempts to deconstruct some of the persistent stereotypes in the toy world were ahead of their time.

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