"Hail to the Chief" failed to win a spot on ABC's fall TV schedule, a victim of declining ratings. But the unconventional comedy series about the nation's first woman President, which finishes its seven-week run tonight, was noteworthy nonetheless as a measurement of how television has changed in recent years.
"Hail to the Chief" was created by Susan Harris for producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas--the same team responsible for "Soap," the ABC comedy that ran from 1977 to 1981.
Like "Soap," "Hail to the Chief" used a serialized format, mixed a variety of comedic forms and seemed calculated, in its language and themes, to be as inflammatory as it was entertaining. There were jokes about religion, race, politics and sex--or, as one ABC executive suggested, something to offend everyone.
Unlike "Soap," however, "Hail to the Chief" arrived and will disappear without having generated so much as a ripple of controversy. There have been a few letters and phone calls to ABC from viewers who were riled by it, and a spate of critical reviews, but nothing compared to the swarm of protest that swirled about "Soap" even before it went on the air.
"I think the country has grown up some," Harris says. "In certain cities (in 1977), 'Soap' couldn't be shown before 11:30 at night. Now it's being shown in syndication at 5:30 and 7:30 in the evening and nobody cares. So things have changed."
"Soap" was a cause celebre , the subject of a letter-writing campaign, pickets and threatened boycotts--mostly the result of several religious organizations that were outraged by early press reports about the sexual content of the comedy series. Several ABC affiliates declined to air it and several delayed it until late at night. Most significantly, many advertisers refused to be associated with the program for fear of economic reprisals by incensed viewers.
The result, ABC Entertainment President Lewis Erlicht has said, was that even though "Soap" caught on with viewers, its commercial time had to be sold at fire-sale prices that failed to cover the production costs. "We lost $3 million a year on 'Soap' because advertisers wouldn't support it," he recalled recently.
ABC stuck by the show for four years, long enough to prove that it wouldn't be intimidated by outside pressure, but the network finally canceled the show to cut its losses, even though the ratings were still respectable.
The subject still rankles Harris.
" 'Soap' deserved to be on for a long, long time," the writer says. "What happened was that the advertisers got scared. They succumed to a few minority pressure groups. . . . If they had paid no attention (to the pressure), 'Soap' would still be on the air. That they did (pay attention) is not a surprise, but it is nonetheless disappointing."
Four years after "Soap" was dropped, "Hail to the Chief" encountered no such opposition on Madison Avenue.
"The audience and the advertisers are much more sophisticated now," producer Witt maintains. "Not only has time and experience--with 'Soap' and other controversial works--proven that the broad television audience will accept all kinds of entertainment, it also has shown that those people who dissent are limited in their influence and power.
"I also think," Witt adds, "that there's a greater realization about a very simple fact: that television is the most democratic of art forms. If there is something we don't like, we can turn the set off or turn on something else. If enough people turn a show off, it fails and goes away--and that's a reflection of the public sentiment. If enough people watch, it succeeds--and that's an expression of the public sentiment too."
In the case of "Hail to the Chief," the public sentiment was against. The show, which featured Patty Duke as the President, got off to a very good start, attracting 32% of the available viewers and winning its time period for the April 9 premiere. But it drew only 24% the following week, 23% for the third episode and 22% for the fourth.
That's the TV democracy working cleanly and clearly, and Harris and Witt say they can live with that, even when it spells cancellation. Besides, their disappointment over "Hail to the Chief" is mitigated by their excitement over their next series, "The Golden Girls," which premieres on NBC in the fall.
"The Golden Girls" is a comedy about three women of about 60--two of them widows, one a divorcee--living together in Miami Beach. It stars Bea Arthur, the Emmy-winning former star of "Maude"; Rue McClanahan, who played Maude's neighbor Vivian, and Betty White, who won two Emmy Awards playing Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Estelle Getty, who appeared in "Torch Song Trilogy" on Broadway and is in the movie "Mask," co-stars as Arthur's mother, who is about 80. The other regular cast member is Charles Levin, who plays the ladies' gay housekeeper.
This series, too, will represent a breakthrough--another sign of how television is changing.
"For years the networks wouldn't go near people that age," Witt explains. "There are a wealth of performers who have been written off or only allowed to play grandparents or character roles."
But it was NBC executives who came up with the concept for "The Golden Girls" and asked Witt and Thomas to produce it.
Harris, who also collaborated with them on "Benson" (a "Soap" spinoff that is still running on ABC) and the short-lived "It Takes Two" in 1982, says she hadn't been planning to write for television again after "Hail to the Chief," but when she heard about NBC's idea, she jumped at it.
"It was so fresh. You just don't see women of that age on television," she says. "I responded instantly, which I rarely do. And I was right: It was a joy to write."
With its exceptional cast, Harris has no doubts that "The Golden Girls" will be funny. She hopes it will also be something more.
"Our perception of people in their 50s and 60s is that their lives are over," she says. "It's not true; they are very vibrant, alive, interested, sexy people. I think we can help change that perception."