ABC Afterschool Special
Entertainment has changed so much since I was a child. I fondly remember waking up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and turning on the big Motorola television in great anticipation of the upcoming cartoons. Of course, 6 a.m. was far too early; the only video was the test pattern. Then the national anthem came on, followed by the early morning news. Boring!
The first cartoons of the day were awful, but then the magic started. Scooby-Doo, Bugs Bunny, Rocky, and Bullwinkle were my jam. Just writing that last sentence fills me with wondered memories. However, the magic faded by 10 a.m. because regular television took over. BOO!
For the rest of the week, there was not much for a kid to watch, with one exception. The ABC network had what they called an Afterschool Special. They intended these dramas for children and teenagers. For that audience, the production quality was surprisingly high because most shows aimed at kids had low budgets. I remember one awful show called Wonderbug. It was about a dune buggy that drove teenagers around during their adventures. Just thinking about it still makes me shutter.
ABC ran the series from 1972 until 1997. What set it apart was the thorough analysis of painful topics, including drug abuse, bullying, mental illness, physical/mental disabilities, crime, AIDS, race, and bad parents/siblings/teachers/friends. I wanted to learn more and found:
From the above, here are some plots:
Episode 32: The neighborhood youth gang agrees to bully and torment the new kid on their 17th Street turf.
Episode 33: 13-year-old Kate deals with the sudden death of her younger sister.
Episode 67: After their mother passes away, a 12-year-old girl assumes responsibility for her two younger brothers, Johnny and Roy.
Episode 72: Teenager Nancy Parks stumbles upon a case of child abuse. Their overworked mom beat and emotionally abused her new boyfriend’s younger brother.
Episode 73: A blind, developmentally disabled infant with cerebral palsy is left in the care of an elderly English woman who refuses to let him die.
These hour-long specials usually left me shaken by their message. “What if I was in a car accident and could not walk like the boy in the show?” These stories brought big issues into my tiny world, causing me to think about consequences, other people’s problems, and life-changing events.
Afterschool Specials were often a topic for my friends, and I distinctly remember one had the same issue. His sister was a bully, and he did not know what to do because she was much older.
I am sure the Afterschool Specials helped many kids talk about genuine issues and made them more aware of people with problems. However, many of the shows were difficult to watch. For example, it was hard for me then to face the fact that a disabled person should be treated normally. In real life, (back then) I wanted to look away. This is the show’s greatest legacy. It taught kids to be respectful, understanding and speak up about problems.
The Afterschool Specials were an anomaly. They could have produced “The ABC Afterschool ROCK-OUT Hour,” and kids could have listened to the newest disco music back in 1972. Yet, ABC leaped controversy and produced something extraordinary.
I think some of my good values came from watching these shows. But what about kids today? Where do they learn hard lessons? YouTube? Tic Toc? No, that entertainment spectrum teaches them important lessons like playing Minecraft and eating Tide Pods. What about movies? They are intended to entertain, not educate, instill values, or explore problems.
That only leaves books. However, today’s kids do not want to read about depressing topics. Plus, modern parents shelter their precious children from problems. What mother will buy her child a book like Episode 67, where a 12-year-old girl assumes responsibility for her two younger brothers? The teacher would call child protective services if they saw their student reading such a book.
Something big is missing from children’s education that was present when I was young because society no longer tolerates exposing our children to painful topics. This is unfortunate because, in this complex world, we need more than ever for our children to be exposed to reality in a safe and supportive manner.
You’re the best -Bill
July 05, 2023
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