Musical TV Dramedy ‘Fame’ Debuted On This Day In 1982

At a time when there were only three broadcast networks, cable was in its infancy, and social media and the streaming services were non-existent, the arrival of the musical dramedy Fame, based on the 1980 film of the same name, was a key ingredient in the future success of NBC. Unfortunately, Fame never did attract much of an audience on the then No. 3 rated network. NBC, in fact, canceled it after just two seasons. But Fame was the precursor to the Peacock net’s wildly successful “Must See TV” Thursday night programming brand. It was another early example of life after cancellation on a broadcast network. And Fame demonstrated the importance, and value, of finding a fan base outside of the United States.

Debuting on this day in 1982, Fame stepped into the Thursday 8 p.m. ET on NBC in place of the failed sitcoms Harper Valley and Lewis & Clark. Lead-out comedies Diff’rent Strokes and Gimme A Break! were modest at best in the Thursday 9 p.m. hour. And sophomore crime drama Hill Street Blues at 10 p.m. was not capitalizing on its eight initial Emmy Award wins (including Outstanding Drama Series). But after acquiring ABC’s Emmy-drenched comedy Taxi for a fifth season, NBC’s plan was to create a night of “Must See” programs for the fall of 1982. Fame would still lead-off Thursday, followed by the new comedy Cheers into Taxi from 9-10 p.m., and Hill Street Blues.

By the numbers (Nielsen ratings, specifically), the plan fell short. Eventual mega-hit Cheers was actually the lowest-rated new fall entry that season, and Fame and Taxi were modest at best. But Hill Street Blues, then in season three, finished the season thisclose to the Top 20 (at No. 21 overall). And the critics took notice. After canceling Fame (which lived on for another four seasons in first-run syndication) and passing on another season of Taxi, NBC never forgot its “Must See TV” roots. By the 1984-85 TV season, it found great success with the Thursday night line-up of comedies The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers and Night Court, and drama Hill Street Blues.

When you think of that classic “Must See TV” programming brand, Fame was a key ingredient.

Set at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts, Fame followed the lives of the students through a mixture of comedy, drama and music. Four cast members from the original movie appeared in the television series: Debbie Allen as dance instructor Lydia Grant; Albert Hague as music teacher Mr. Shorofsky; and Lee Curreri and Gene Anthony Ray as students Bruno Martelli, an introverted musical prodigy, and Leroy Johnson, a tough hood from the projects with a natural talent for dance.

Unlike any other TV series at the time, or before, Fame set its own rules, tackling real life issues often through song. It won 9 Emmy Awards (including two for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography), not to mention the Golden Globe twice for Best Television Series – Comedy or Musical, among other accolades. There was interest in the series around the world, most notably in the United Kingdom, which led to several hit records and live concert tours by the cast. And over the six seasons were the arrivals of several new cast members (including Billy Hufsey as Christopher Donlon, Janet Jackson as Cleo Hewitt, Nia Peeples as Nicole Chapman, and Carrie Hamilton as Reggie Higgins.

In December 2008, Channel 4 in the United Kingdom aired a 90-minute special titled Bring Back…Fame, reuniting some of the original cast members.

NBC revisited the title Fame in a reality competition in 2003, which used the same theme music (with a new vocal) and was produced by Debbie Allen. The goal was to find the next “triple threat”, someone who could sing, dance and have star quality. It did not, as the theme song implied, “live forever”, lasting one season. But the original TV series Fame, and the movie before it, has left a lasting mark in the importance of being unique. And it was the precursor to “Must See TV.”

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