Friday, August 18, 2017

WKRP in Cincinnati

 (This post is part of the Workplace in Film and TV Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini)

For better or worse, today AM radio in the United States is nothing but talk, with a few country and oldies stations being the exception to this rule. This was not always the case. In the days before FM radio came to dominate music programming, there were plenty of AM stations that played rock 'n' roll. The late Seventies were a bit of a last hurrah for rock music on AM radio stations in the United States, as the Eighties would increasingly see radio stations switch to talk formats. It was then perhaps fitting that on September 18 1978 there debuted a now classic TV show about an AM rock 'n' roll station, WKRP in Cincinnati.

WKRP in Cincinnati centred on radio station WKRP, a 5000-watt, AM station located in Cincinnati, Ohio. The struggling radio station had an easy listening format when it switched to rock music. To this end, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) was hired as its new programme director. Andy had a history of turning around struggling radio stations. Unfortunately, at WKRP he found an rather eccentric staff, not all of who were necessarily happy with the change in format. Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) was WKRP's general manager, who had the job only because his mother owned the station. Carlson was good natured and a decent person, but he was also rather bumbling and not particularly effective as a general manager. Les Nesman (Richard Sanders) was the overly serious news director at the station, particularly proud of his Silver Sow award for hog reporting. Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) was WKRP's advertising manager, a man with bad tastes in clothing and a bit of a buffoon. Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) was the station's blonde and sexy receptionist, easily the most intelligent person at the station (it probably could not run without her). The star at WKRP was disc jockey Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), a former big-time DJ in Los Angeles who was fired (and apparently blacklisted) after daring to say "booger" on the air. An insomniac, Johnny drank copious amounts of coffee and only seemed truly alive when on the air. Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) was WKRP's smooth-talking evening DJ, who tend to dress in flashy, but fashionable clothes. Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) was a young woman originally in charge of billing and station traffic at WKRP, a bit of wide-eyed innocent when the show began.

WKRP in Cincinnati was created by Hugh Wilson, who based the show on experiences that he had when he worked at AM station WQXI in Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, many of the characters were based on actual people, including Andy Travis, Herb Tarlek, and Johnny Fever.  Some of the episodes were even based on actual incidents at WQXI, including what may be the show's most famous episode, "Turkeys Away". As far fetched as it sounds, such a promotion actually occurred, although in real life the turkeys were thrown from the back of a truck.

WKRP in Cincinnati debuted on September 18 1978 on CBS. Unfortunately it aired opposite the still popular Little House on the Prairie on NBC (ranked #14 for the season). It did not do well in the ratings and CBS pulled WKRP in Cincinnati after only eight episodes. Fortunately overwhelmingly positive reviews and support from a loyal fan base resulted in the show being returned to the CBS schedule. What is more, it received a better time slot. It still aired on Monday night, but it followed the highly popular show M*A*S*H.

It was also during the first season that WKRP in Cincinnati began to evolve. Originally the series primarily focused on the radio business, with episodes such as "Hold-Up" (in which Johnny Fever does a remote from a stereo shop only to find himself held at gunpoint) and "Turkeys Away" being the norm. As the first season progressed the show began to be centred more on the characters and less on radio. A new set was added, the bullpen, in which most of the characters had their desks. This allowed for the cast of WKRP in Cincinnati to develop into a true ensemble.

By the time of its second season WKRP in Cincinnati was both well received by critics and successful in the ratings. For its second season it ranked #22 out of all the shows on the air. Unfortunately, one would not always know this from the treatment the show received from CBS. In the middle of its second season WKRP in Cincinnati was moved from its plum spot following M*A*S*H to its original, 8 PM EST/7PM CST time slot on Monday night. Sadly , this would be the first of many changes in time slot for the show. In the end CBS would move WKRP in Cincinnati 14 times during its original run. Sadly, this would have a deleterious effect on the ratings. It was moved four times during the 1979-1980 season alone, and each time it lost around 2.5 million viewers.

By the fourth season of WKRP in Cincinnati the show's ratings had fallen far enough that CBS cancelled the show. Its last original episode aired on April 21 1982. Reruns of the show continued on CBS until September 20 1982. While WKRP in Cincinnati did well in the ratings for only a brief period during its original network run, it proved to be a phenomenal success in syndication. In fact, WKRP in Cincinnati made more money in syndication than any other show produced by MTM, beating out such legendary classics as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show.

Of course, over the years the reruns of WKRP in Cincinnati aired in syndication would differ a bit from what they had in their original forms where first aired on CBS. Being about a radio show, rock music played a large role on WKRP in Cincinnati. Sadly, in the Seventies, music was most often licensed to TV show for a limited duration of years. As licences for the various songs used on the show expired, they were often replaced by other, often inferior songs. It was because of music licensing that WKRP in Cincinatti would not be released on DVD for years. When it was first released on DVD in 2007, it was with the substitute music. Fortunately, in 2014 Shout Factory began releasing the four seasons of WKRP in Cincinnati with most of the original music intact.

The success of WKRP in Cincinnati would lead to a sequel series. The New WKRP in Cincinnati saw Gordon Jump, Frank Bonner, and Richard Sanders return as Arthur Carlson, Herb Tarlek, and Les Nessman. Howard Hesseman made a few guest appearances as Johnny Fever.  The New WKRP in Cincinnati would not see the success that the original had in syndication, and ended its run after two seasons and 47 episodes.

WKRP in Cincinnati debuted when I was a teenager heavily into rock music (to give you an idea of how big a rock fan I was, some people guessed my brother and I might have the largest vinyl collection in the county). Quite naturally I was drawn to a show about a rock 'n' roll radio station. I certainly was not disappointed. WKRP in Cincinnati would turn out to be one of the best shows of the late Seventies and early Eighties. It was nominated for several Emmys (although it won only one, for Outstanding Video Tape Editing for a Series) and it even won a Humanitas award for 30 Minute Network or Syndicated Television for the episode "Venus and the Man".

As to why WKRP in Cincinnati would prove to be a lasting success, I think that comes down to the fact that it was a character-driven show played by one of the best casts assembled for a show and written by some of the best writers in the business. WKRP in Cincinnati wasn't about a radio station. It was about people who worked at a radio station. Because of this it produced some of the best half hours ever seen on American television. "Turkeys Away" is often included on lists of the greatest TV episodes of all time, but WKRP in Cincinnati had several other fine episodes. In “Clean Up Radio Everywhere” Andy tackled a moral crusader who attacked WKRP's playlist (this was shortly after Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell had criticised WKRP in Cincinnati and other shows). In ""Dr. Fever and Mr. Tide" Parts One and Two Johnny Fever becomes a success as the host of a disco dance show (going by the name Rip Tide) and becomes in danger of losing himself. In "Put Up or Shut Up" Jennifer tries to put an end to Herb's constant come-ons by actually going out with him.  

WKRP in Cincinnati could even tackle sensitive subjects, remaining funny without being offensive. On December 3 1979 The Who were in concert at  Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, where 14,770 of the tickets sold were general admission--essentially first come, first serve. When the crowd waiting outside mistook a soundcheck by The Who as the actual start of the concert, there began a stampede. As a result eleven people were trampled to death. WKRP in Cincinnati devoted an entire episode to the tragedy in the episode "In Concert", which aired on February 11 1980. The episode sensitively dealt with the danger of festival seating (the first-come, first-serve, general admission tickets) of the sort used by Riverfront Coliseum. It was easily one of the best episodes of the show. Here it should be noted that before the episode had aired the Cincinnati city council had banned festival seating.

It is precisely because WKRP in Cincinnati had well-developed characters and well-written episodes that it remains a beloved show today. It remains in syndication to this day and all four seasons are available on DVD. It is even available on various streaming services. CBS apparently did not realise what they had on their hands when they were moving WKRP in Cincinnati around their schedule. In the end it would prove to be one of the most popular shows to emerge from the late Seventies.


Caftan Woman said...

" produced some of the best half hours ever seen on American television."

When you're right, you're right. I readily admit that even at my young age at the time of its initial run, I had not developed into a rock and roll fan. Nonetheless, that was no hindrance to my affection and admiration for WKRP. To this day there are lines I quote and memories fondly recalled.

Your detail of the history of this outstanding show is exceptional, and a very interesting read.

Steve Bailey said...

Terrific summary of an outstanding show. One of my fave episodes is the two-parter when Johnny Fever leaves for another station but then returns, only to find his old time slot taken, so he has to do the early-morning gig as "Heavy Early." The unsung bit where he does his sleepy airtime routine is one of that show's funniest scenes.

Hal said...

So many terrific episodes of varying tones. The Tarleks on "Real Families". "Fish Story" (even though Hugh Wilson reportedly hates it). Right up to the end; "To Err is Human" and "Up and Down your Dial". Well worth following for the entire run, multiple times.

Paula said...

Thank you for this post, Terry. Lots of great background info. This is one of all-time favorite '70s TV shows, along with Three's Company and Bosom Buddies.

Silver Screenings said...

The network moved the time slotFOURTEEN TIMES?! Good gravy – it's a miracle this show lasted as long as it did.

There are a few episodes of WKRP on YouTube, and I was on a real WKRP binge earlier this year. I liked how they tackled some serious subjects and did so with fairness.

Thanks for all the background info on this remarkable series. :)

Debbie Vega said...

I love this show SO much, especially the way it went against stereotypes (i.e. Jennifer, the blonde bombshell, is the smartest person in the office). Such an amazing ensemble! I still laugh out loud every time I watch Turkey's Away.

Thanks so much for all the great background tidbits!