Adventures on Prime Time: The Television Programs of Stephen J. Cannell

By Robert J. Thompson | Go to book overview

5 Autobiographical Adventures: The Early Days of Stephen J. Cannell Productions

The start of 1980 found Cannell entering not only a new decade but a new era in American television, for himself and the rest of the industry. Elsewhere, within a year or so, shows were appearing for the first time that would be the templates for subsequent series in the years to come. Dallas, which debuted toward the end of the last decade on April 2, 1978, would establish the nighttime soap opera as a viable commercial form in the 1980s as it climbed to the top of the ratings in the 1980-81 season as millions tuned in to find out "Who shot J. R.?" The first episode of Hill Street Blues aired on January 15, 1981, and while it took a while before it achieved the status of a hit, it soon became famous for its "upscale" demographics that advertisers were anxious to exploit. It was not unusual to see a commercial for diamonds or Mercedes Benz automobiles during Hill Street, and the show's success paved the way for more "quality television" like St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982-88) and Moonlighting (ABC, 1985-89). Another television revolution, the inauguration of the all-music video channel MTV on a host of cable systems on August 1, 1981, would influence the look and style of both prime-time programming and the commercials that interrupted it.

With the exception of MTV (which would heavily influence Cannell's series later in the decade, especially Hunter and Stingray), Cannell would steer clear of most of these stylistic revolutions. 1 But he was about to embark on some­ thing of a revolution of his own, albeit a much less ostentatious one as those mentioned above. The autobiographical themes with which Cannell had been toying rather extensively throughout his career at Universal were about to become some of the chief distinguishing features of his oeuvre. He would not so much reject the form and style of the traditional action-adventure, as Steven

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