(Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoy this repost of a classic Retroland article)
Learning can be fun! At least, that was the ABC Network’s stance when it came to programming for children and teens. With its series of after school specials, ABC managed to deliver some worthwhile lessons and coin a phrase at the same time. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the TV movies taught us all a valuable lesson about pretty much everything, from proper nutrition to the dangers of drug and alcohol.
Starting in 1972, ABC launched its schooling-away-from-school series with “Last of the Curlews,” a Hanna-Barbera animated feature concerning the plight of the curlews, a fictional bird species. The curlews were slowly dying out, you see, and kiddies got to empathize with the avian race, while surreptitiously learning about ecology and environmental problems. The cartoon went on to win an Emmy award in 1973 for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming.
Here’s a promo for another episode from the early years:
Specials continued to be produced, some times in animated form but mostly as live-action installments, often performed by the network’s young primetime stars. Noteworthy pieces include “The Wave,” in which a high school teacher teaches his students about social conformity using Third Reich propaganda tactics; “Winning and Losing,” about a senate race; and the animated literature classic, “Cyrano de Bergerac.” Later on, the specials became overtly moralizing and suffered from an abundance of melodrama in dealing with contemporary issues. It didn’t help that the episodes sported ungainly titles like, “Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom;” “The Boy Who Drank Too Much;” and “My Dad Can’t Be Crazy (Can He?)”. Some specials boasted celebrity involvement such as teen idol Scott Baio going on a drug-fueled binge in “Stoned” and Oprah Winfrey, who hosted an after-afterschool special panel discussion following the airing of “I Hate the Way I Look.”
And now, a promo for “My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel”:
The series eventually came to signify the corniness achieved by adults who face, and often fail to understand, young people’s issues. Regardless, when properly written and executed, these specials were entertaining and thought-provoking and bravely dealt with social concerns that were still considered taboo at the time.
Nostalgia, that great driving force, has brought some of the best (and also some of the worst) specials back to the public’s attention. Hopefully, you youngsters will stop laughing at the funny 70s and 80s fashions long enough to absorb a valuable lesson. And if anyone comes across “The Day My Kid Went Punk,” we’d be very interested in watching it as well.
Did you have a favorite among the long list of after-school specials? Did any impart a particularly valuable lesson that you have carried through life? Do you remember any so cheesy that you laughed way more than you learned? Share all of your memories of this show with us at Retroland. It’s just our little way of reminding you about the importance of sharing.