Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

Wiped Out: When Johnny Carson Helped Cause a Toilet Paper Shortage in 1973

In 1973, Johnny Carson accidentally prompted mass panic over toilet paper.
In 1973, Johnny Carson accidentally prompted mass panic over toilet paper.
Image: Jemal Countess, Getty Images. Background: seb_ra/iStock via Getty Images. Composite: Jake Rossen, Mental Floss.

Gary VandenBerg, the assistant manager of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Appleton, Wisconsin, was accustomed to fielding customer requests and making sure everyone left happy. But in December of 1973, VandenBerg was confronted with a peculiar situation.

His store was running out of toilet paper. Fast.

Customers plucked rolls from shelves as quickly as they could be stocked. A woman came in looking to purchase 10 cases. Store management decided to triple their normal order. It wasn’t enough. The Piggly Wiggly had been inexplicably besieged by people hoarding bathroom tissue.

Just a few days later, this local epidemic would soon turn into a national concern. And Johnny Carson would be to blame.

 

In 1973, the United States was beginning to grow accustomed to shortages. Oil prices had soared due to an embargo; the stock market was plunging.

In the midst of this, Harold V. Froehlich—a Republican congressman from the heavily-forested eighth district of Wisconsin—began receiving complaints from constituents that pulp paper was getting harder to come by. Around the same time, Froehlich noticed some news reports of a tissue shortage in Japan. He investigated and believed the source of the claim was companies who were exporting more pulp paper out of the United States to avoid federal price tolls on domestic sales.

A person is pictured grabbing a package of toilet paper
Toilet paper was believed to be in short supply.
sergeyryzhov/iStock via Getty Images

Believing this could lead to a serious paper shortage of all types, Froehlich issued a press release on November 16, 1973. Few news outlets paid much attention. Then Froehlich discovered the federal government’s National Buying Center had failed to secure their normal number of bids for a four-month toilet paper supply intended for soldiers and bureaucrats. Froehlich issued a second press release on December 11, this one focusing more on the potential for a shortage of not only paper, but the one consumer product that no American could live without: “The U.S. may face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months,” he wrote. “We hope we don’t have to ration toilet tissue … a toilet paper shortage is no laughing matter.”

Froehlich’s intention was to bring attention to what he perceived to be an industrial problem by pointing out a shortage that would affect every household in the country.

It worked. News media began to cover the story on television and in print. The more outlets that picked it up, the more words like “potentially” were lost in translation. Almost immediately, consumers were buying shopping carts full of TP out of fear they might soon not be able to buy any.

On December 19, roughly a week after Froehlich’s second and more dire warning, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson made mention of the story in his monologue. "Of all the shortages we have ... there's a gasoline shortage," he said. "You know what else is disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper! Ah, ha, ha! You can laugh now! There is an acute shortage of toilet paper in the good old United States. We gotta quit writing on it. But I wanna tell ya, it is serious. I just saw a commercial ... where a Mrs. Olsen comes in with a shopping bag and a housewife says, 'Forget the coffee, just give me the shopping bag.'"

With an audience of roughly 20 million viewers, Carson’s mention activated a national paper panic. Millions of people cleaned retail shelves of rolls. A store in Seattle ordered 21 cases but received only three, adding to the hysteria. One woman reported asking for toilet paper rather than gifts for her party. Stores tried setting limits of two to four rolls per customer. Others raised prices from 39 to 69 cents per roll—not to gouge customers, but to dissuade them from buying too much. Other paper products like towels and cups were also in short supply. There were even rumors that a toilet paper black market had emerged, where hoarders were offering rolls at a mark-up.

“I’m used to being able to go when I want to, but suddenly I think I’m going to have to start curbing my habits,” one woman said.

The more toilet paper that was purchased, the more customers unable to find toilet paper were convinced there really was a shortage. Froehlich was right about the crisis—only he was the one who had unintentionally caused it.

 

The toilet paper frenzy continued into 1974—but eventually, consumers realized Froehlich’s concerns simply weren’t materializing. Respected CBS broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite urged calm on his newscast and aired footage from the Scott Paper Company that demonstrated toilet paper was coming off the factory line without delay. Even Froehlich walked back his comments, though his third press release didn’t get nearly the same attention as the one where he raised the potential for bathrooms devoid of toilet tissue.

When he returned from his holiday break, Carson felt compelled to issue an apology. “For all my life in entertainment, I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare,” he told viewers. “I just picked up the item from the paper and enlarged it somewhat … there is no shortage.” The furor soon wound down.

Strangely, it would not be Carson’s only brush with bathroom controversy. In 1977, the host was able to win a lawsuit against Earl J. Braxton, a Michigan businessman who marketed portable toilets under a name that was familiar to Tonight Show viewers: Here’s Johnny.

Flex Appeal: How Soloflex Conquered '80s Fitness

Soloflex ads were must-see television in the 1980s.
Soloflex ads were must-see television in the 1980s.
Jerry Wilson, YouTube

Jerry Lee Wilson thought he had figured out the perfect way to motivate employees: He brought a shotgun to work.

It was the late 1970s, and Wilson was overseeing a factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, that produced his Soloflex machine, an all-in-one resistance exercise device that was quickly taking off thanks to creative print ads of sinewy torsos. Orders were pouring in for the apparatus, but Wilson’s workers insisted they could produce just eight of them per day [PDF]. The high-quality steel construction was too labor-intensive to make any more than that.

But to keep up with demand, Wilson needed at least 20 new machines manufactured daily. That’s when he brought the shotgun.

In front of his employees, Wilson took aim at the clock on the wall and fired. The message was clear: Shifts were a thing of the past. Meeting that 20-machines-per-day quota was all that mattered now.

Soon, Wilson's employees were indeed turning out 20 Soloflex machines a day. Before long it was 48. In 1998, Wilson reached $98 million in sales—$54 million of which was pure profit.

Wilson's motivational tactics may have been unconventional, but so was the man himself. Before launching his Soloflex empire, he was a full-time pilot and a part-time drug smuggler.

 

By Wilson's own admission—he wrote a tell-all autobiography, The Soloflex Story, in 2009—he had considered the fitness industry a viable alternative to running up against the law. In the 1970s, Wilson was an airmail pilot as well as a pilot for private charter planes. In between legitimate flights, he was buzzing thousands of pounds of marijuana across state lines. He was caught and arrested in Oklahoma in 1976; he was put on trial but claimed there was a hung jury after he was accused of attempting to seduce one of the jurors. A second trial was held where he was found not guilty.

Narrowly avoiding a federal prison sentence allowed Wilson to concentrate on his pet project. More than a decade prior, he had been taught a series of weightlifting exercises at the New Mexico Military Institute. Wilson knew the value of a resistance training regimen but recognized the danger it posed to people unfamiliar with free weights. The weights could slip and fall on someone; overexertion could lead to injuries. Wilson believed there would be demand for a device that could safely mimic the exercises he had been taught. Some of his wealthy charter passengers told him there was money to be made in manufacturing.

A Soloflex is pictured
The Soloflex had an L-shaped design that accommodated a variety of exercises.
Soloflex

Wilson couldn’t weld, but he got assistance from Arthur Curtis, who owned Curtis Steel in Las Vegas. Because Wilson couldn’t afford materials for his prototype, he traded Curtis a .22 pistol for the steel. Slowly, an L-shaped pole with a support bar and a bench began to take shape. Instead of free weights, which could be dangerous as well as prohibitively expensive to ship, Wilson equipped his machine with thick rubber bands that could be adjusted to provide greater resistance as users grew stronger. He named the product Soloflex, a possible nod to the fact that you didn’t need a spotter to monitor a heavy weight exercise. He then started plotting how to market his $450 machine.

Third-party distribution was unlikely. While universal workout machines like Nautilus had been popular in gyms for years, casual fitness enthusiasts weren’t buying them for home use. Sears had already turned down a similar type of machine out of fear that people wouldn’t be interested. In the late 1970s, serious resistance training was still stigmatized.

Wilson’s solution to that problem was to make a direct appeal to the consumer, rather than trying to convince a middle man of the product’s value. Wilson began taking out print ads in national magazines touting the benefits of the Soloflex, being careful to avoid the kind of veiny, bodybuilding type of photography that appealed only to hardcore enthusiasts. His ads featured fit but reasonably proportioned bodies with stark captions. “The Chest,” read one. “The Stomach,” read another. “Body by Soloflex,” they announced. By dialing the 800 number listed in the ad, people would receive a VHS cassette explaining the Soloflex and its novel approach to fitness.

In 1978, his first full year of national advertising, Wilson made $80,000. He also accrued $80,000 in debt. But he was able to show investors a steady stream of orders, which kept going up.

Unfortunately, so did print ad rates. In the early 1980s, Wilson saw a nearly 300 percent increase in costs to place the ads, which started cutting into his advertising budget significantly. He needed another way to evangelize his temple to the ideal physique and get the VHS footage directly to consumers.

For the second time, Wilson was able to cut out the middle man. Thanks to Congress, it was now permissible for anyone to buy paid airtime on television.

 

The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 deregulated prohibitions on paid advertising that was program-length. Suddenly, thousands of cable channels were inundated with paid promotional advertising. According to Wilson, it happened so quickly that many didn’t even have a department to handle the checks advertisers were sending them.

Soloflex was an ideal product for the infomercial format. It resonated with people best when demonstrated, which is why Wilson had made such an effort to circulate the VHS tapes. As a narrator extolled the virtues of the device, fit models pulled and tugged on the bars, which provided smooth resistance and allowed for fluid motion. While it was likely not as effective as free weights, which require more muscle activation in order to stabilize the load, it made for excellent television. Wilson bought 100-hour blocks of time on stations and later estimated that one in seven U.S. households ordered the brochure that continued the sales pitch.

While most fitness models were generally nameless—and perhaps even faceless—to most viewers, Soloflex had managed to make a celebrity out of Scott Madsen, a 21-year-old who was waiting tables when he spotted an ad soliciting a model who looked like a gymnast for a gig in his hometown of Hillsboro, Oregon. Better still, it paid $50 an hour. Madsen not only looked like a gymnast, he used to be one: He had gone to the University of Wisconsin on a full athletic scholarship but dropped out after a year. The job looked to be a way to monetize his physique.

Madsen quickly became the body most closely associated with Soloflex; his popularity earned him a lengthy profile in The Washington Post in 1985 and Soloflex found an additional revenue source by moving more than 70,000 posters featuring Madsen's toned and shirtless body. He auditioned for a potential role in a Hardy Boys film and was cast in another, Leatherboys, which People described as a “post-nuclear holocaust teen gang” movie. (It was never made.) He even scored a book deal for Peak Condition, which a Washington Post reviewer called “more of a sexy photo album than a book about physical fitness.” (In the book, Madsen took the curious tact of endorsing free weights and criticized the current “exercise-machine infatuation.”)

Madsen became a gay icon, too. His print and brochure ads were often taped to people's walls and Madsen once bemoaned the fact that people were far too comfortable asking him to take off his shirt. When one reporter confronted him with the idea he was “genetically perfect,” Madsen scoffed.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “So 'sought-after,' I think that would be a better word.”

To Wilson’s great satisfaction, the Soloflex had become part of popular culture, with revenue to match. Sales in 1992 reached $100 million. But success brings imitators. In a crowded fitness market, Wilson was about to be deluged with knock-offs that threatened both his bottom line and the health of his potential customers.

 

Wilson struck out in 1986 when he introduced the Armchair Quarterback, a scaled-down version of the Soloflex that was intended to conserve space but failed to take off. In 1990, he announced plans for Robox, a full-size robot that purportedly offered a boxing-style workout in which users could both hit the machine (which he claimed used materials similar to those of crash-test dummies) and that the robot could actually hit back. There’s no evidence the $2500 device ever made it to market.

But Wilson had bigger concerns than sentient and violent artificial intelligence. The success of the Soloflex had led to a wave of imitators, most notably the Bowflex, which Wilson alleged stole the trade dress, or commercial style, of his machine. They even used Madsen for some spots. So Wilson sued Bowflex, and won an $8 million settlement in 1998. A few years later, in 2004, 420,000 Bowflex units were recalled due to a risk of collapse. Wilson was quick to point out that people shouldn’t confuse the two machines. Wilson also sued NordicTrack for appropriating his commercial approach and earned an $18.5 million settlement.

Scott Madsen is pictured in a Soloflex ad
Scott Madsen, the Soloflex company's beefcake-in-residence.
Soloflex

Those may have been the last great victories of the Soloflex empire. An attempt to market a Soloflex Wall, which was described as a “wood-steel hybrid wall panel” for home construction fizzled in 2000. A steep increase in television ad rates made pervasive infomercials or Super Bowl commercials cost-prohibitive. Worse, Wilson’s own insistence on quality was counterproductive. Because he refused to utilize the kind of “planned obsolescence” common in consumer goods, which allows for products to fail after a finite period of time, people who bought one Soloflex had no cause to ever buy another. There was also a rich secondary market in used fitness devices that were being neglected: Wilson has acknowledged the majority of Soloflex buyers stopped using them after a period of time.

Both Wilson (who is now in his seventies) and Soloflex are still in business, but typically shun print or television advertising and instead rely on word-of-mouth and internet marketing.

Madsen, who seemed to disappear in the late 1980s, resurfaced in 2010 after he was sentenced to two years in prison for embezzling $248,544.60 from his uncle’s mortgage firm. Madsen had fabricated expenses that he charged to the company, making him very sought after by prosecutors.

Since the introduction of the Soloflex in 1978, the fitness industry has seen countless mail-order products, trends, supplements, and endorsements. It now feels like a relic of a bygone era, one where people idly stopped on a televised sales pitch for a device they were unlikely ever to use for any length of time. It was one thing to contemplate the idealized body. Trying to achieve it was another story. For many, the Soloflex became a $500 or $600 clothes hanger—plus $60 shipping.

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