No shows are born classics. Even the most foundational pieces of television history started out with a mix of first impressions. That’s what we’re here to look at.
Welcome to the first installment of Early Receptions, a recurring column where we take a step back to examine how audiences and critics first responded to some of TV’s most famous programs. We start things off at a place where everybody knows your name.
Cheers premiered in the fall of 1982. And the public did not care. Like, no one could be bothered to watch this show.
Though Cheers would go on to reach 275 episodes during its decade on the air, most critics didn’t expect it to last past the first season. The show originally ran alongside Hill Street Blues, Fame, and Taxi (which had been dumped by ABC) as a part of NBC’s Thursday night lineup. Hill Street Blues was the sole guaranteed success for NBC on Thursdays, and Cheers lacked a solid lead-in to attract viewers.
As Baltimore Sun critic Bill Carter described the time slot, “Cheers is the best, brightest, most welcoming new address on television. The only thing wrong with it is location. In a better neighborhood, Cheers would be the unqualified success of the television season.”
A month after its premiere, Cheers failed to rank higher than 48th place in the Nielsen ratings. Critic David Bianculli wrote that the show was received “as warmly as an old batch of Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules.” Keep in mind Cheers premiered the same week as the so-called Chicago Tylenol murders, during which seven people died after consuming pills laced with cyanide. Things were that grim.
As a newcomer, Cheers faced major pressure to perform. Luckily, the show had an outpouring of support from critics. Based solely off its pilot episode, Cheers was described by some as world-class TV comedy alongside the likes of M*A*S*H. As a fictionalized version of Nicolas Cage would say, “That’s high praise.”
The question most were asking was, are enough viewers discerning enough to tune in?
Bianculli was among the show’s most vocal supporters. In addition to calling Cheers the best new TV comedy in years, he made a direct appeal to Nielsen families to save the show.
“I hereby offer the use of my own home every Thursday. You can watch whatever you want on my TV set; you can even use my Betamax and watch a movie, if you want,” he wrote. “The only catch is that you have to leave your own TV set tuned to NBC for the entire evening. If you do that for a month, I will pay each family $20.”
Howard Rosenberg of The Los Angeles Times was equally baffled by the show’s lack of success. Although he stopped short of inviting strangers into his home.
“What’s going on here? This is not supposed to be happening. Something is wrong. The good guys are losing,” Rosenberg wrote in December 1982. By that time, Cheers had sunk to last among primetime programs.
By February 1983, Cheers was still a critical darling mired in dismal ratings. But show lead Ted Danson remained optimistic, if only Cheers could make it to a second season.
“We’ll find our audience. It’s just a matter of time, of getting viewers to tune in a couple of times so they can get to know us,” Danson told reporters. “I can’t believe our show won’t catch on.”
According to Bianculli, Cheers lasting even one entire season was due to the work of NBC Chairman Grant Tinker. Apparently, Tinker believed in the quality of the show enough to toss it a lifeline despite sagging viewership. It was a gamble, but thanks to a little — or a lot — of patience, things panned out.
More than a year after Cheers premiered, the show’s second season and its continued critical praise finally began to lead to more viewers. The show even reached that point of success where audiences started to complain that its quality had diminished since it grew in popularity. Consider this the “Holden Caulfield Bar,” whereby anything that gains widespread success is suddenly deemed a “sellout” or “phony.”
Almost a year after offering a cash reward to families willing to set their unwatched televisions to Cheers, Bianculli was able to breathe a sigh of relief. It appeared that the show he praised was here to stay.
“At this point in its young life, Cheers has earned praise, not complaints. Executive producers Les and Glen Charles and James Burrows have created a very entertaining comedy, and NBC has shown laudable patience in letting the show find its audience,” Bianculli wrote in the fall of 1983. “Last season Cheers was ranked 74th of 99 primetime shows; last week, it placed 25th of 68 shows and handily defeated ABC’s Trauma Center.”
As for this first installment of a column about the early days of popular shows, let’s hope we lean a little more toward Cheers than Trauma Center. But for now, this is last call.