For decades, September has traditionally marked the beginning of the new television season, with old shows returning and new ones debuting. That remains true today. But the world was a very different place when NBC, CBS, and ABC introduced their fall lineups back in the fall of 1986. (Fox was a year away from having a proper fall schedule.) Entertainment options were fewer, and the big three networks had a virtual monopoly on the viewing audience. Cable existed but wasn’t yet much of a threat, video games were considered just for kids, and nobody had even heard of the internet, let alone Netflix. It was standard practice in those days for TV networks to do elaborate promos, sometimes even entire prime time specials, hyping their fall lineups. Some of those promos, unsurprisingly, have aged like fine milk over the last 30 years.
Thanks largely to a renaissance sparked by The Cosby Show, NBC was riding high in 1986. Bill Cosby, now a pariah, was one of the most beloved men in America at the time, so it’s natural that he and his TV family should be the focal point of NBC’s ad campaign. The Peacock Network’s slogan that year was “Come Home To NBC,” and they commissioned an exuberant gospel song with that title. Seen in this ad are the stars of Family Ties, The Golden Girls, Night Court, St. Elsewhere, 227, Hill Street Blues, and more. Keep an eye peeled for David Letterman, who clearly could not be bothered to dress up for this occasion.
ABC’s slogan in 1986 was a little creepier: “We Belong Together.” But their advertising jingle (written by Brock Walsh) was a class act, a soulful duet between legends Aretha Franklin and Leon Russell. The Alphabet Network didn’t have as many hits as NBC then, but Tony Danza and Cybill Shepherd are here, as are the stars of Dynasty, Growing Pains, Head Of The Class, Sledge Hammer!, and Perfect Strangers. Like NBC, ABC chose to stage lots of Norman Rockwell-esque vignettes of American life.
CBS had a corny, sentimental slogan and jingle of its own that year: “Share The Spirit.” What does that even mean? “It’s about people you can lean on,” goes the song, “who never let you down. It’s about love.” Oh. And just who are those people? For one, it’s Tom Selleck of Magnum, P.I., plus the stars of Dallas, Falcon Crest, Newhart, and a slew of shows about mismatched duos: Simon & Simon, Cagney & Lacey, and Kate & Allie. CBS sure had a thing for ampersands back then. It’s all worth it for a shot of Bob Newhart looking extremely disengaged.