Long before the internet could answer any possible question, there were a handful of ways that teens and pre-teens could find answers to pressing problems. They could go to the library and find a book. They could ask friends, but that was a sure-fire way to get a non-answer. If they had a good relationship with their parents, they could have an open and honest conversation about various issues.
Or, they could sit down in front of an ABC Afterschool Special.
The series debuted in the 1970s and ran until the late 90s. But the heyday and the time the series had the most impact was in the 80s. It pushed broadcasting boundaries by airing hour-long dramas aimed at a teenage audience, addressing controversial topics, and starring some of the most famous and popular young actors of the time.
There was a considerable shift in family culture during the 70s and 80s. Divorce, which had been relatively uncommon until this time, became more prevalent. Women who previously had stayed home to take care of the house and kids were now forced to find jobs to support their families. Even in stable, two-parent homes, women were entering the workforce in droves.
A single parent or two working parents meant that there were a lot of kids who were on their own after school. They were known as latchkey kids and were responsible for taking care of themselves (homework, a snack, entertainment) until the parents came home from work.
The network executives had done their research, and they knew that their programming could fill a niche. Not only could they provide entertainment to a guaranteed (and desirable) demographic, but they could also provide guidance and education to teenagers across the country.
It often seemed as if no topic was off-limits. The specials tackled the usual issues, like teen pregnancy, bullying, drunk driving, and substance abuse. This last topic was the focus of several different episodes, mainly in part because of First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Say No to Drugs” campaign of the mid-80s.
But they must have had some “out of the box” thinkers because they also addressed some genuinely unique situations. A teenage girl has a crush on a soap opera star, and her new English teacher closely resembles the star (It’s No Crush, I’m in Love). In another episode, a girl finds out that the mother she thought was dead was in an institution due to mental illness (Are You My Mother?).
Then there were the “pushing the envelope” episodes. A brother and sister go on vacation with their mom, only to find out they are being kidnapped by her to keep them away from their dad (I Want to Go Home). A girl is shocked to find out she has contracted an STD from her boyfriend (A Very Delicate Matter).
One particular episode was ahead of its time. Just a Regular Kid: An AIDS Story, was about a boy who becomes infected by AIDS via a blood transfusion. In a time when AIDS was a new disease (there wasn’t a lot known about it), and the extent of the epidemic was still years from being realized, this was groundbreaking television.
Dyslexia, child abuse, teen parenting, literacy, fear of failure…they were all addressed in various episodes. It would be difficult to find a topic that wasn’t the focus, or a secondary plot, to an afterschool special.
Now, this isn’t to say that all of them were serious. There were quite a few based on popular teen novels. Even classic stories were adapted to modern times in episodes like The Celebrity and the Arcade Kid (based on Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper) or Cindy Eller: A Modern Fairy Tale. And yes, the titles were usually either over-the-top dramatic or only offered a hint as to the actual topic.
A glance at the cast lists of some of the episodes of the early and mid-80s reveals a virtual who’s who of Hollywood. Stars knew that it was good exposure, producers knew that famous names would bring more viewers, and teens knew that it was the chance to see their favorite actors (and maybe learn something as well). Because the series was well-known and widely-watched, it served as a launch pad for many careers as well.
Three years before The Outsiders made him a true teen heartthrob, Rob Lowe was a 16-year-old teen fighting for his son in Schoolboy Father. Jennifer Grey was virtually unknown when she played a catty stepsister in the previously mentioned Cindy Eller in 1985. It aired one year before she became known as Ferris Bueller’s beleaguered sister Jeannie, and two years before Patrick Swayze took her out of a corner in Dirty Dancing.
How about a 14-year-old Ben Affleck as a kid trying to find his mom a happily ever after in 1986’s Wanted: The Perfect Guy?
Watching the afterschool specials now could be a fun party game: find the stars before they were famous and predict the moral of the story. But in the 80s, it was a lifeline of information for kids, and parents, across the country.