25 Things Vanishing in America, part 2: 10 p.m. drama on network TV

I'm supposed to write about the disappearing 10 p.m. drama, but quickly, first, a Jay Leno anecdote. Back in the early 1990s, shortly before he took over the reigns of The Tonight Show, I actually met the legendary comedian in person. He was performing at Indiana University where I was a student, and I had written him a fan letter, and he was nice enough to call me and invite me backstage to meet him. Unfortunately, as cornfed college student, I was so excited that when I did meet him, I didn't act like a normal person. I stammered a few inarticulate thoughts and punctured our stilted conversation with a lot of long, awkward pauses. It's one of those fond memories that also makes me cringe.

In any case, Mr. Leno's gesture way back when means that I can't help but hope he succeeds when this fall, he starts his 10 p.m. show, Monday through Friday. I hope his show is a big hit even if -- as some people suspect -- it means a deathblow to the 10 p.m. drama on network television.Ten p.m. has long been a time reserved for grown-up programming. As a kid in the 1970s, those shows were more mythical to me than anything else. Fantasy Island was on at 10 p.m. on Saturdays, and so I could stay up for that. Charlie's Angels was on at 10 p.m. when it debuted in 1976 but due to its popularity soon began airing earlier. But shows like The Streets of San Francisco, Family, Barnaby Jones and Lou Grant, and in the early 1980s, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere were out of my reach... at least on school nights.

Without that 10 p.m. slot, there might be no Hart to Hart, no Quincy, M.E. or Knots Landing. We may have never had a cultural touchstone like the "Who shot J.R.?" storyline from Dallas. So it is kind of sad, at least for some TV afficianados like myself, to think about the 10 p.m. drama on network TV disappearing. And yet, with so many TV shows available on web sites like Hulu.com and Netflix (subscription needed), there are a lot of those older 10 p.m. shows easily accessable, and it's not as if you can't find 10 p.m. dramas on cable channels like USA and TNT, and of course, we still have ABC and CBS to keep the tradition alive.

But certainly Leno's arrival at 10 p.m. coincides with the passing of the most successful 10 p.m. drama in some time, ER, which recently ended. ER first debuted on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. in 1994, fifteen years ago, and while some critics have carped that the show jumped the shark awhile ago, there's no question that it's been a huge success and given a lot of people something to enjoy watching from 10-11 p.m.

But even back when ER arrived, the 10 p.m. drama was in some trouble. Three years earlier, in 1991, the Atlanta Journal Constitution observed, "Viewers are turning away from late-night heaviness. There hasn't been a hit 10 p.m. drama introduced since LA Law debuted five years ago."

In 1994, when Drs, Greene, Ross and Carter started saving lives, NYPD Blue on ABC was a hit and Northern Exposure was gasping its last, but in general, networks were going with inexpensively produced news series like Prime Time Live, Turning Point, Dateline NBC and 48 Hours. (For anyone who wants to see what was airing when, check out Wikipedia's amazing history of TV program schedules.)

So maybe it's time for something new, and of course, maybe it'll work out well for everyone, with Jay Leno commanding enough of a chunk of an audience to keep performing at 10 p.m. indefinitely, and CBS and ABC able to offer programming for people who enjoy seeing families implode and detectives nailing bad guys.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).


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