Twenty years ago, 'Cosby' wore the crown as comedy king on a night dominated by NBC
With NBC currently in fourth place, what Jeff Zucker needs — besides a handful of hit shows and a stranglehold on the 18-49 demo — is a potent dose of nostalgia, circa 1985.
Twenty years ago, the Emmys were awash in Peacock feathers. Four of the five nominees in the comedy series category hailed from NBC, with “The Cosby Show” triumphing. And three of the noms among drama series were also from NBC.
“It was very exciting,” recalls Ted Frank, now exec VP for current series at NBC, who was then a VP of program research. “There was such a dramatic change in momentum that it just swept everybody along.”
NBC toppers now can take solace in the notion that Emmy dominance as well as ratings dominance is capricious. Although the TV landscape has changed dramatically because of a cornucopia of choices offered by cable and the Internet, the duels between broadcast nets remains a constantly evolving game of king of the hill.
“History will show that through the ’60s and early ’70s, the rank was always the same,” Frank explains. “It wasn’t cyclical in those days. CBS was first. NBC was second, ABC was third.
“Things began to change in the latter part of the ’70s. ABC had ‘Roots’ and a number of other shows and jumped into first. Then for a while NBC dropped to third. From 1980 to ’82 we struggled in third place.”
Then in 1982, Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff teamed as NBC toppers. They helped to usher in a crop of new shows that strengthened NBC’s lineup and translated into kudos come Emmy time.
In 1985, NBC had four comedy series nominated: “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers” and “Night Court.” It also had three entrants in the drama category: “Hill Street Blues,” “Miami Vice” and “St. Elsewhere,” although CBS’ “Cagney & Lacey” prevailed.
John Leverence, senior VP for awards at the TV Academy, says the popularity of those NBC shows translated into audience interest for the Emmy telecast itself, pointing out that 1985 was the penultimate year for an Emmys ratings climb before the influx of cable triggered a slow decline starting in ’87.
In ’85, the Emmy telecast pulled in a 12.9 rating in the 18-to-49 demo; by contrast, last year’s show posted a 4.6.
“There was some indication that with mass-market television audiences,” he says, “there would be a mass-market TV audience for awards shows given to them.” In ’85, ardent devotees of those NBC series tended to tune in and root for them on the Emmy telecast.
Carol Himes, one of the producers of “Family Ties,” gives much of the credit for that NBC gold rush to the team of Tinker and Tartikoff.
“It became known as the home of good comedy,” she recalls. “The interesting thing was, before we started, word on the street was that sitcoms were dead. Everybody was into one-hour dramas, and nobody cared about sitcoms anymore. That was before Bill Cosby came on the air. Cosby turned the light back on.
“(Tinker and Tartikoff) were terrific because they both understood comedy. They gave their shows enough of a lifespan to build upon. A great show doesn’t hatch out of its pilot all full-blown beautiful, with all of the characters working. That was one of the major things Grant Tinker did. He allowed them to grow, keep them on air and eventually find an audience.”
Frank notes ratings today aren’t comparable to ratings then, because the playing field isn’t the same.
“The ‘Cosby Show’ ratings were so high compared to any comedy today that it’s almost inconceivable,” he says. “So you can understand why there was so much interest in seeing an awards show then, because there were so many people watching the shows.
“I believe ‘Cosby’ ratings peaked at around the high 30s a year or two after (1985). As opposed to today, where a show will be a success with a 7 or an 8. Now everybody looks more closely at demos. Those days it was about household numbers.”
Still, Frank believes what set NBC apart from the competition in ’85 was quality.
“I think some of those shows raised the standards for what you could do with comedy and drama,” he explains. “I actually think it was a terrific time in terms of the caliber of shows. Shows like ‘Hill Street’ made some of the police shows before it look old-fashioned. Some of the comedies advanced the art of television comedy.”
Later, of course, came NBC’s run in the ’90s, with “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Frasier” leading the comedy cavalcade, and “ER” and the “Law and Order” franchise powering the dramas.
“We had other great runs since then,” Frank says. “But that was the first one, so it was special.”