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Our own Kier-La Janisse was fortunate enough to get an interview with Martin Tahse, the producer of the long running ABC series.
There was once a time when the only way the average person could hear people candidly talk about drug addiction, sex, teen pregnancy, venereal disease, or domestic abuse was in Exploitation films. Provided the filmmakers/exhibitors hid behind a veil of morality (most of these films began with a scrolling reel called "The Square-Up", which denounced the subject matter they were about exploit), they were able to escape the scrutiny of the Motion Picture Production Code. In addition to placating potential censors, the square-up also relieved the guilt of those who would otherwise feel like perverts wanting to watch films like CHILD BRIDE or THE WAGES OF SIN.
As always, the dominant class has a way of hegemonizing what was once a threat to the status quo and subverting it to suit their own interests. Subcultures that were once 'alternative' or 'countercultural' are cleverly adopted by the mainstream as a means of gaining the respect - or more importantly, the economic support - of audiences that existed outside their realm of influence. Eventually the public school system followed the example of the exploiteers, deciding that providing an arena for all this controversial subject matter was an educational obligation. After a couple decades of obtuse "social guidance" films that were alternately hilarious and traumatizing, television got in on the act, with films like SARAH T: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC and the Scott Baio vehicle STONED perfectly blending the melodrama of classic exploitation cinema with a sincerely educational mandate.
But TV really hit the mark with the ABC Afterschool Specials, a series of short films aimed at young teenagers. The series launched careers (Kristy McNichol, Rob Lowe, Helen Hunt, Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, among others) and provided a candid view of real teen problems, while remaining as engaging as they were didactic. It was Brandon Stoddard (who was then-head of ABC Daytime) who green-lit the first After School Specials, and just to give you an idea who this guy is, he's the same guy who green-lit Twin Peaks years later. They were on every other Wednesday, September through May.
I was fortunate enough to talk to Martin Tahse, the most prolific
and award-winning producer of the Afterschool Specials, who was kind
enough to offer his thoughts on the series in an interview.
KJ: How did the Afterschool Specials come about? What was the pitch?
MT: ABC decided that there was a gap between kids watching the Saturday morning ghetto and the adults watching prime time. In other words, no programming for teens. After School Specials thus came into existence. The first few were aimed at the younger kids, pre-teens. But rather quickly the specials graduated to the older teens, the thought being that pre-teens would watch older shows, but older teens would never look at younger shows. And it proved to be true. But also ABC found that we were also attracting an adult audience, particularly women. After all, the specials aired right after "General Hospital". That helped lend credence to more mature teen shows. Brandon Stoddard, a very bright guy and head of daytime television, was put in charge of After School Specials. Under him I won the Peabody Award for "A Special Gift", so he is special to me.
KJ: Were the specials produced by independent companies and then sold to ABC? I ask because your specials are available on DVD and not the others, and the ABC logo is not on them. So I'm just wondering if ABC licensed them from you at the time and the rights remained yours?
MT: The procedure was this: Independent producers would find a property they liked and then pitch it to ABC. If the network approved, contracts were drawn for the show to be produced, financing supplied by ABC. Early on and up into the 80's, ownership was vested in the producer. ABC merely licensed two runs of the show. If there were a third run, the network paid an additional fee. Many producers were new to the field, so ABC should win awards for having the courage to put their faith in them, financing them, and launching many careers. Only a handful of producers did more than one show, and then perhaps as many as two to four. I was honored to be able to produce 26 shows.
After my second or third After School Special, and just as CBS started their Schoolbreak Specials, ABC signed me to a seven-picture deal to keep me at ABC. I was fortunate to have the relationship I had with Squire Rushnell (who became head of After School Specials after Brandon) and his very wonderful number one person, Mickey Dwyer-Robbin and later, others) because my productions won consistent good reviews and awards (one show - "Did You Hear What Happened to Andrea? - was nominated for 8 Emmy's and won 5, my one show representing 1/3 of all daytime Emmy's won by ABC that year. I was allowed greater freedom in choosing writers and directors, and seldom did any book I submitted for a special ever be turned down. I think we all - my staff and those at ABC - enjoyed the experience, and I like to think that joy appears subliminally in my productions.
In the late 80's and till the series went off the air, ABC decided to retain ownership of each special.
KJ: Did all the ABC afterschool specials have literary precedents? Was that a requirement, and if so, is there a reason for that, like sponsorship/co-production funding?
MT: No, all After School Specials did not come from books. In fact, most of them didn't. All of mine, however, with the exception of "Picking Up the Pieces", were based on Young Adult novels. I did that on purpose for a number of reasons. (1) It was easier to pitch a book that had already won acceptance. (2) The book provided a ready audience for the show, including recommendations from librarians and teachers. (3) Many YA books were written by first-time authors, who wrote about experiences in their life. I could sense when this was the case, because of quirky dialogue, unusual sequences, unusual reactions to incidents - things that could not be invented. These made far better shows, I felt, and the reviews proved that to be the case. (4) Because of this uniqueness, I could insist that we keep the integrity of the story when I had script meetings with ABC.
I was blessed with book authors who acknowledged what I did. Barbara Cohen, who wrote "Thank You Jackie Robinson", about a boy's love for the Brooklyn Dodgers when Jackie Robinson first played baseball, a love shared by the new, black chef at his mother's inn. Davey, the chef, took Sammy to his first game and later caused Sammy to learn about death, when Davey died, and to find a way to cope with it. The day after the show aired, Barbara called me to say that her brother had seen the show and was thrilled how we had presented his story so lovingly. She thanked me profusely and made the week for me!
Barbara was only one of many writers who revealed to me that yes, that was their story, and thanks.
I loved the show so much I tracked down Red Barber, the announcer for all the Dodger games, in Florida and persuaded him to call the games for me in the show. The director on the show was Rob Lieberman, to whom I gave his first dramatic show after working in commercials. "Jackie Robinson" won all sorts of awards, in part because of Rob's superb work. He is now a director of features.
No outside funding was ever solicited by me or, to my knowledge, by any other producer. We all did what we loved and coped with the budgets that ABC allotted. They weren't the biggest budgets, but they were not at all stingy ones, either. And as the years passed and costs rose, ABC raised the budgets.
KJ: Was there a directorial formula in place that each special had to follow, and if so, what was this formula derived from?
MT: All the shows were divided into a tease and four acts. Our hour
translated to roughly 45 minutes, gradually less as more commercials
were added. The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow
was this: The kid always had to figure out what to do and do it.
No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid
who was in a situation and found, through his/her own efforts, a
KJ: What was the casting process? Were people like Lance Kerwin and Kristy McNichol - as well as many others who later became famous - pretty much unknown before the specials? Are there any actors you used who you thought deserved more attention that didn't go on to become big stars?
MT: I always cast my shows with the director. We each had a vote, and we both had to agree on each actor. I'd often use stars from series because, as the news about the quality of the After School Specials spread, many of those stars came to us and asked to be in the show. And they would work for scale. Kristy was one of the stars of "Family", that great ABC series. Melissa Sue Anderson was one of the stars of "Little House on the Prairie." But I never cast a star for a star's sake. They had to be right for the part. Many actors in my shows went on to greater things - Michelle Greene in "Law and Order", Felicity Huffman in "Desperate Wives", Rob Lowe in "West Wing" and numerous features, etc.
The story came first - I prized the writers I used - and I always cast actors who illuminated the story and made it real.
KJ: How were the specials able to get away with controversial subject matter? Were there ever any episodes producers got heat over? What devices would commonly be used to thwart protest from concerned parents? (either in the specials themselves or the marketing)
MT: Following "General Hospital", was there any subject we couldn't use? Daytime always led prime-time in controversial material. I believe it still does. But if we were going to deal with problems of teenagers, it had to be all of their problems. And ABC went right along with that. My one rule in dealing with what might be called a controversial subject was this: don't sugarcoat the resolution. It had to be real. If kids watched any of my 3 specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks, and I wanted the kids who watched - many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents - to know how it really is. "Francesca, Baby" my first on the topic, was the highest rated daytime show on all three networks for the entire week. You don't mess with an audience like that.
I never once got an irate letter from a parent. On the other hand, I often got letters from kids saying they experienced the same thing or thanks for giving them help etc. Often while shooting on location at a school, kids would come up to me and thank me for a particular show. Last year a salesman, at a post production house I was considering, insisted I have lunch with him. He turned out to be from Taiwan, had come to America with his brother and parents. Both parents worked, and his life was being a latchkey kid in a foreign country. But he saw "The Pinballs", one of my shows where three kids were finding they could get along in a new foster home and face life in the face, and this gentlemen said to his brother, "If they can do it, we can do it." And some 20 years later he insisted upon picking up the lunch tab to thank me.
KJ: Did films like OVER THE EDGE have any effect on the trajectory of the specials? By the end of the 70s did you find yourself competing at all with more graphic big-screen portrayals of teen angst, or feel you had to up the ante at all?
MT: The After School Specials, I believe, pretty much followed their own trajectory. As a result, they remained unique, never copycats of features. I think that spoke to our audience, because over the years our audience kept getting bigger. The Emmy's this year bragged they got 14 million viewers. In primetime, at that. My shows mostly always pulled 14 million kids, even more as the series progressed. It proved to be a very, very successful series - partly, I think, because we were what we were. And somehow, kids caught on to that. We were playing to them and hitting home, not dancing the light fantastic to get them to buy a ticket to a bad sequel.
KJ: Do you think the specials have been supplanted by movies like KIDS nowadays? What are your feelings on modern-day teen angst films like this?
MT: My feelings on modern-day teen angst films? Not much. Sure, there are good ones - often from foreign countries. Most are designed for the weekend opening grosses, but if you track those, once that initial lunge is past, the picture flattens out at the box office. Mostly because of a poor script and poor execution. Kids are not dumb and never have been. Fickle, yes. Dumb, no.
KJ: What was the personal appeal of the specials for you?
MT: I loved finding good books, I loved keeping in touch with the authors of the books - we all became pen and phone pals. I loved the feedback from the audiences. I just loved the very act of producing - being on the set everyday, editing my shows, introducing new directors and writers and actors, trying new things. I had to convince ABC to air "Jackie Robinson" in sepia instead of color, so I could use actual footage of Jackie Robinson, Ebbetts Field, etc. And even find the entrance to a tunnel leading under a street which we used to match the subway entrance outside Ebbetts Field. Sammy and Davey emerged from a tunnel under Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood to take a turn to the right and enter Ebbetts Field. There's nothing like it, producing, absolutely nothing.
I also loved working with the crew, all independent contractors yet to a man determined to make this the best picture. And we all did, every day.
KJ: There is a lot of dispute on the internet as to when the specials officially went off the air. When exactly did this happen, and why did it happen?
MT: I believe the series went off the air in 1990 or 1991. Disney
had bought ABC and they shut the series down. I do not know the reason.
I had decided to move on to other areas before that.
Well, that's it, now you know. And knowing is half the battle.