1981 was a revolutionary year for television and deserves to be remembered

Forty years ago the small screen was graced with relatable superheroes, music videos, and tabloid TV.

Teleport a Gen-Z'er back to the Seventies and plop them in front of a television. Aside from not understanding how to operate the thing, the younger generation would be surprised at what they found — or didn't find — on the dial. The primetime lineup primarily stocked sitcoms. Even the hour-long fare like CHiPs and Charlie's Angels were far more lighthearted. Back then, TV aimed to be fun. Today, it more often aims to be serious.

But then time-travel to 1981. Suddenly, the programming seems much closer to the modern age.

Celebrity gossip, prestige dramas, music videos, relatable superheroes, glamorous housewives, irreverent kids programming that adults could enjoy — it all blossomed in 1981 thanks to the following. Let's take a tour.

1. Hill Street Blues

Dragnet and Adam-12 brought realism to the police procedural, collaborating with an appreciative LAPD and crafting plots straight of their case files. Hill Street Blues took the baton and humanized the men (and, importantly, the women) in blue, imbuing the characters with all the flaws found in antiheroes of Seventies cinema. In this way, it set the mold for ensemble prestige television, paving the way for everything from NYPD Blue to The Sopranos.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. Dynasty

Before Americans became obsessed with the Real Housewives of Wherever, they turned to the Fake Housewives of Denver. Primetime soap operas were nothing new, but Dynasty draped its drama in diamonds and gold. The show also budgeted enough beauty products and soft lighting to make a perfume commercial drool. Catfights between Krystle (Linda Evans) and Alexis (Joan Collins) were the stuff of modern social media feuds. Dynasty fixated on superwealth, and we never turned back.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. Entertainment Tonight

In the 1970s, news was… well, news. Politics, natural disasters, home runs, that sort of thing. Then came Entertainment Tonight, which ushered in "tabloid television," bridging the gap between the grocery checkout and the modern internet. ET treated Hollywood as the center of the universe, turning media into an ouroboros of pop culture self-promotion. In 1981, the faces behind the desk included Ron Hendren, pictured here. Mary Hart would join in 1982, Leeza Gibbons would follow a couple of years later. John Tesh, Hart's best-known co-host, brought his enviable hair to the chair in 1986.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. MTV

What would talk of 1981 television be without MTV? (That's MTV, not MeTV.) The Music Television channel powered up on cable that year, famously kicking its run of music videos with the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." Forty years later, the era of MTV showing nothing but music videos seems rather brief. It gave that up around, what, halfway through its history?

Image: The Everett Collection

5. The Smurfs

Cute cartoon characters are not revolutionary in themselves, so what made the Smurfs so special? A couple of things. For starters, they were European in origin, proving that characters from overseas could play big in America. Secondly, this was a cartoon based on a comic series and — crucially — a line of collectible figurines. Really, the cartoon was a commercial for toys, which became the primary function of animation in the 1980s. 

Image: The Everett Collection

6. The Greatest American Hero

Superheroes had been on TV for decades, from the camp crusading of Batman to the groovy heroism of Wonder Woman to the inner rage of The Incredible Hulk. But The Greatest American Hero did a couple of important new things. First, it proved that original creations like William Katt's spandex hero could stand on their own. This was not an established character from DC or Marvel. Also, Ralph Hinkley (later, Hanley) was a relatable everyman like us. Wonder Woman and the Hulk and their like were gods and monsters. Ralph was a substitute teacher. The blend of comedy and comic-book heroics made this a template for the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Image: The Everett Collection

7. Gimme a Break!

In the 1970s, if a network gave a singer a television show, odds are, it was going to be a variety show. But after the death of the variety show, how were Broadway stars to cross-over? Nell Carter proved that Tony Winners could take home comedy Emmys, too. Naturally, she belted out the theme song to her sitcom, too. Black women had not had much of a chance to headline their own shows. Remember, this is just 13 years after the ceiling-shattering Julia with Diahann Carroll, and seven years following Get Christie Love!, the first network drama centered around a Black woman. Gimme a Break! would run for six seasons.

Image: The Everett Collection

8. You Can't Do That on Television

Gen-X kids will fondly recall this sketch comedy series, imported from Canada. Kids had had their only television, but nothing like this, an irreverent series modeled after Laugh-In and SNL. This was kids' television but by no means educational. That was important. Its crazy characters and recurring premises (the wise-cracking Alisdaire tied up before a firing squad, disgusting chef Barth, etc.) helped the nascent Nickelodeon network become a destination for tweens and teens. This is the show that also introduced "sliming" to the channel, as green slime would fall from the sky whenever someone said, "I don't know." That green goop became a trademark for Nickelodeon. Oh, and Alanis Morissette was a cast member.

Image: The Everett Collection

9. …and so much more!

Let's not overlook the other awesome shows that kicked off in 1981, including Lee Majors singing his theme song on The Fall Guy (pictured here), Simon & Simon, Father Murphy, Falcon Crest and Darkroom. Oh, and was 1981 the birth of the reboot? Perhaps! Both Bret Maverick and The Brady Brides premiered that year!

Image: The Everett Collection

SEE MORE: 8 favorite foods that first appeared in 1981

McNuggets, McRibs, Lean Cuisine and pudding pops? Thanks, 1981!


Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


MichaelFields 28 months ago
LOVED the Greatest American Hero and was so sad when it was canceled and that is one show I would not mind seeing remade and The Fall guy was a fun show because of Heather Thomas
Mob39 39 months ago
Aaah!! The 80’s!! My all-time favorite decade!👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻
KentHuxel 40 months ago
I assume they mean the US debut of You Can't Do That On Television. It premiered in Canada in 1979 as a live local program on CJOH before getting picked up by T.H.E. Television Network, run by L. Nickelson Dime.

Another fun fact: Adam Reid appeared on the TV movie Dater's Handbook, co-starring Meghan Markle.
Zombie 40 months ago
Oh yeah! Those were the good ol days of watching TV shows.
DuanneWalton 40 months ago
And Son of Svengoolie was going strong on WFLD channel 32 way before he grew up and joined ME-TV. Did anyone ever think he'd one day go national and have stuff like coffee mugs, action figures, and stay at home kits?
Dario 40 months ago
Ron Hendren was a movie critic for KNBC Ch. 4 here in L.A. for a brief time in 1980 before getting the gig at ET.
Brian 40 months ago
Hills Street Blues and it's medical twin St. Elsewhere were what people who wanted more from TV loved to watch in 1981 and on. Like so many shows which broke new ground (or whatever metaphor you want to use) both lost their edge (pizazz?) with each new season.

Anyone from Buffalo also loved all the great Buffalo-NY references in Hill Street Blues (e.g., street names). Y'all can read up on why that is online somewhere I'm sure (there's no need for k-i-a replies on the subject). During the next workday we would try to cite the most Buffalo references in an episode.
UTZAAKE Brian 40 months ago
The funniest Straight Dope I ever read dealt with where the series' storyline took place. Steven Bochco intended his fictional city to be a hybrid of Chicago, Buffalo and Pittsburgh (he was a Carnegie Mellon graduate). Attached to the q&a column was a cartoon with a smiling bulldog wearing a Keystone Cops uniform posing next to a sign which stated "Welcome to ChiBuffburgh" which is exactly what I call his fictional city.
AgingDisgracefully 40 months ago
My misty water-colored memory from Hill Street Blues: Lt. Howard Hunter (James Sikking) to Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel Travanti), "Don't hamstring me, Frank. I need the validation."

Before long, that kind of idiot-speak would actually be accepted. What a world.
Corey 40 months ago
The Greatest American Hero had the best theme song and they had to change Ralph's last name cause of the attempted assassination of Reagan.
Rob Corey 40 months ago
I didn’t know about the name change.
Delmo Corey 40 months ago
They changed it back shortly thereafter.
HerbF 40 months ago
Might have mentioned both the 1980-1981 and 1981-1982 TV Seasons were hit with strike related delays - both 1980 Actors strike (three months) and The 1981 Writers Guild of America strike (also three months long) hit two seasons back-to-back.

This explains the short episode counts for those years, and the delay in seasons for many shows ("Who Killed JR?" on DALLAS was affected - CBS rushed to get the episode completed as soon as the 1980 strike ended) - some were canceled after only delivering an additional half-season!

Two well known casualties of the 1980 strike was the delays in both the second season of "Buck Rogers" (Which also had a revamp) and "Bosom Buddies". (Which strangely enough also had a slight tweak in it's format.) Both didn't start to air till early 1981. (…and were canceled.) The 1980 strike is also the reason why "The Greatest American Hero" had a late season start and short first season in the Spring of 1981.

An odd note is the last two NEW episodes of "Lou Grant" aired at the end of the Summer of 1982 - AFTER the show was canceled - and both ranked in the top 10! CBS actually held episodes from the 1980-1981 block, aired those as part of 1981-1982 and ended up with two (not in production order) shot as part of 1981-1982 left over to "burn off". (Ed Asner's political issues caused CBS to cancel the series.)
VaughnBaskin 40 months ago
Uh you forgot about PBS' 1st ever mystery solving and educational series for kids and teens PowerHouse and Ruby-Spears' 1st ever action packed cartoon series of all time Thundarr The Barbarian!
Wiseguy VaughnBaskin 40 months ago
Before you can "forget" something, you have to know it to begin with. If they never knew it, they can't forget it, and they don't have the time to research everything YOU know. And even if they did know it, they can always make the decision to not include it. That's not "forgetting" either.
VaughnBaskin Wiseguy 40 months ago
Bug off Wiseguy okay? And scram!
WordsmithWorks 40 months ago
Loved Hill Street Blues, although I didn't care for how they explained the death of Sgt. Esterhaus (having sex with his girlfriends? Please.). Also didn't care for his replacement. Now, as far as the Greatest American Hero goes, who can forget it's stamp on popular culture? "Believe it or not, George isn't at home, leave a message at the beep."
moax429 WordsmithWorks 40 months ago
I still have the album on which those two shows' themes appeared, Mike Post's "Television Theme Songs." (I recently had that vinyl album dubbed onto a CD for my own personal enjoyment. Shame it was never commercially reissued that way.)
Wiseguy WordsmithWorks 40 months ago
its not it's. Two diifferent words.
WordsmithWorks moax429 39 months ago
The Rockford Files Theme by Mike Post. Classic 70's.
WordsmithWorks Wiseguy 39 months ago
Possessive case.
dexxry 40 months ago
A middle aged, male executive was choosing the videos for MTV. He would watch samples at home, where he had two teenage daughters. He hated Toni Basil's 'Oh, Mickey', but his daughters loved it and played it incessantly. They warned him that if he did not put it on the air, they would kill him, so he did. It was their first mega hit, and he realized that middle aged men should not be evaluating pop music.
dexxry 28 months ago
This comment has been removed.
BrittReid 40 months ago
Never Missed "Headbangers Ball"....
AnnieM BrittReid 40 months ago
'120 Minutes' fan, here!
daDoctah 40 months ago
1981 was also the "year without a Letterman". Dave had his morning show in 1980 but it ended after only five months before the year was out. It was reincarnated in late-night form in February of 1982, and at first re-used a lot of sketches and bits that people who had watched the morning version recognized, but those new to Lettermania saw as brand-new stuff.

I did watch You Can't Do That On Television, even though I was technically a little old for their intended demographic. Whatever happened to Moose McGlade?
DavidWindhorst daDoctah 40 months ago
Looking back, that daytime show seems to come from some surreal alternate reality. Daytime terrestrial national legacy network TV just could not have birthed such a thing, however short-lived.

We did at least get Letterman's HBO special during the interregnum:

KentHuxel daDoctah 40 months ago
According to her website, Moose "help(s) businesses operate in the online environment" with her own business consulting company Analytical Engine Interactive Inc. See more on her website: christinemcglade.com/sample-page/
Moody 40 months ago
Hill Street Blues is still one of my all-time favorite shows. Great stories & great acting. The grittiness & almost constant chaos just made it seem much more real than the cop shows of the 60s & 70s. Michael Conrad as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus was one of my favorite characters. The show wasn't quite the same after he died although it was still a very good show. "Let's be careful out there."

I did watch Dynasty from time to time with my wife who was a big fan. I only watched to see Heather Locklear. The other shows I didn't really care for.
cperrynaples 40 months ago
Hill Street was intended to debut in 1980, but was delayed by an actors strike!
Pacificsun 40 months ago
In 1971 (perhaps) the first network (PBS) offered “documentary/reality” series (was about the Loud Family of Santa Barbara, Calif.) that ran weekly on American television. It was stark, contentious and raw footage about trailing the painfully slow dissolution of a middle class marriage and the undoing of an affluent teenaged family.

Link: https://www.metv.com/lists/1981-was-a-revolutionary-year-for-television-and-deserves-to-be-remembered

More than that, it marked a line between the prior decades of happy, fantasy-adventure driven and pure escapist television! While the series' format was never meant to compete with traditional network fare, it did inspire the creative juices of producers and executives in order to transition towards “nitty-gritty” programming. Certainly the likes of which we see today!! Which (as this article presents) didn’t hit full-force until the 80’s. But by then audiences were almost desperate for a reality-shift (pun intended). And unless already having become a Classic-TV (retro) fanatic of this day, viewers back then could only take so much of recurring Happy Days - like episodes. Which is because audiences themselves were maturing. Having grown up with ILL and Ozzie & Harriet, they soon came to realize a much broader range of complication existed in the real world!

The concept of enjoyable (fun, light-hearted emotion) almost lost its own sense of value and turned into somebody else’s definition of “entertainment” instead. And there we have been ever since! Including varying degrees of a broader range “truths” being presented. “Hill Street Blues” was a very significant entry into the dramatic/reality world, with a premise that was more about following along with the officers in the moment than watching a plot from beginning to end, with some situations never seeing a satisfying resolution. It was a roughed-up version of Adam 12 (meaning that the entire precinct was in turmoil) with few cooler heads in control.

In the day, I do remember viewers being starved for and fascinated by such stimulation! Some people I knew even identified with HSB because of the chaos and challenges they experienced in their own working environments! And so we watched as a variety of TV series shifted from their controlled, well-staged clever and repetitious formats (think of ILL) into a world of unexpected action and twisting emotions!!

Hard to believe for us now, that such a passive state of a viewer’s mentality could survive as long as it did, beginning with a lot of those shows which are now enjoying their 40th anniversary!

And very interestingly so, now understanding why MeTV so successfully offers us that sweet return to nostalgia! All things coming full circle!!
MrsPhilHarris Pacificsun 40 months ago
I saw that doc on the Loud family. It was fascinating.
AnnieM Pacificsun 40 months ago
I could not agree more with all you said. I was 17 in 1981, and I remember being so excited about shows like HSB and St Elsewhere, since they had characters who spoke and acted like 'real' people (for the most part). Even 'Bosom Buddies' - silly premise, yes, but I'd call it the first real connection to today's modern sitcoms, with all the meta humor, etc.
harlow1313 40 months ago
I have to say, I feel nostalgia for those first few years of MTV. It both reflected and defined the style of those times.
Pacificsun harlow1313 40 months ago
Wasn't it the precursor to music videos?
harlow1313 Pacificsun 40 months ago
Well, there are earlier music videos, but MTV made the medium popular by bringing it to the masses.
Pacificsun harlow1313 40 months ago
Thank you!
Barry22 harlow1313 40 months ago
So do I. Unwatchable now.
AgingDisgracefully Barry22 40 months ago
Ditto. By 1990, I didn't want my MTV.
AnnieM harlow1313 40 months ago
I remember a number of years ago hearing a comedian make a joke about how the 'M' no longer stood for 'Music', and now meant 'Miscellaneous'.
OldTVfanatic AnnieM 40 months ago
Now the M in MTV stands for moronic.
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?