As NBC prepares to Leno-ize the 10 p.m. slot starting next fall, I thought I’d remind myself of some of the NBC shows that have appeared in that now-off-limits slot in the past. (This was done with the help of this list of shows that appeared on network schedules each season, or at least on the fall schedules.)
Up until the early ’60s, the 10 p.m. hour was frequently used for half-hour programs — there weren’t all that many hour-long shows in the early years of TV, and those that did exist were more likely to air at 9. But as the modern TV schedule developed, that last hour became a place where a network would try to find one show, put it there forever and forget about it — since it’s not an easy slot to fill. Often that something was variety or talk: after Jack Paar left The Tonight Show, NBC gave him his own talk show in prime-time at 10 p.m. See, everything old is new again, except Paar only did the show one night a week, not five.
NBC’s late ’60s mainstay of the 10 p.m. slot on Thursday night was a variety show, The Dean Martin Show. This show sort of sums up the weird limbo state of the 10 o’clock spot: it’s still prime time, but it’s a little late to be real prime time, and because FCC indecency rules don’t apply after 10 p.m.,censorship technically doesn’t apply as strongly to the slot (I say “technically” because BS&P and advertisers between them can still apply plenty of pressure). So a lot of 10 p.m. shows were a tiny bit dirtier than what came before — NYPD Blue was a 10 o’clock show — and a little looser. So you got this long-running hit where Dino leered, cracked up while making bad jokes, and pretended to be drunk. (This was a lot better than ABC’s idea of a naughty 10 p.m. show: Love American Style and The Love Boat.)
In the ’70s, and for many years thereafter, a major presence at 10 p.m. was the cop show: too violent to air in the “family hour” of 8 pm. (which due to an infamous FCC ruling became reserved for family-friendly shows), and comfort food for older viewers. ABC put shows like Starsky and Hutch and Vega$ in this hour, while NBC’s cop-show offerings included Police Story, one of the best cop shows of the era, and its less prestigious spinoff, Police Woman, and the mother of all Forensic Mysteries, Quincy!
As time went on, the 10 o’clock formula evolved a bit. People still wanted mysteries, but the even older-skewing audience wanted more elegant, less violent mysteries. ABC’s Hart To Hart, which had almost no onscreen violence or impropriety (outside of marriage), took on all comers in the 10 p.m. slot; NBC countered with a superior twist on the same formula, Remington Steele. Scripted TV pioneer Roy Huggins took over NBC’s Hunter and re-tooled it from a grungy ultraviolent action cartoon into a mostly non-violent mystery show with glamorous settings.
But as the ’80s went on, NBC became the king of 10 p.m. by developing and nurturing a bunch of high-quality 10 o’clock shows, shows like St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Miami Vice and Crime Story. 10 o’clock on NBC was almost like cable is today — the place you went to see something you couldn’t see in earlier time slots, whether it was slightly more explicit content (I emphasize slightly) or more complex storytelling, or that wild Miami Vice lighting.
But by the early ’90s, it was getting harder to find stuff to put at 10 o’clock, and more of the hour was being turned over to reruns, movies and local programming. Other than that, the pattern was similar: you either used 10 o’clock for quality shows that skew older, quality shows that need to escape censorship (NYPD Blue) or not-quality shows that skew older (Walker, Texas Ranger). NBC mostly stayed in category 1 with Law and Order, Homicide, ER, and… Profiler?