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1980s Television – Introduction

If the TV show you are watching features a swag of characters in infeasibly large shoulder pads and an excess of hair gel, do not adjust your set – you are watching television as seen in the 1980s.

The 80s was the decade in which American soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty dominated the ratings, media coverage and popular debate.


In Britain, police dramas proliferated in the 1980s. Both the BBC and ITV had female detectives; Juliet Bravo (BBC) and The Gentle Touch (LWT) respectively; there was a black detective – Wolcott ; a local radio detective Shoestring; a Chinese detective The Chinese Detective (natch); a Scottish detective Taggart ; the long-running series set on the island of Jersey Bergerac ; and the highly acclaimed Inspector Morse series set in Oxford and starring John Thaw.

There was a massive growth in video recorder ownership in the 1980s, so we were now able to have more control of things (if we could work the timer), and the VCR became the new necessity.

In 1985, 94% of American households had a television set, and 50% had a video cassette recorder – double the number from only a year earlier. Ah, but which to buy? Beta? VHS? Beta? VHS? One of the most pressing decisions in the early 80s was which video system to choose for your expanding home entertainment unit.

By 1982 there were nine VHS manufacturers and three Beta. The term ‘Beta Loser’ entered the lexicon as that format went the way of 8-track cartridges.

89120901Also revolutionary, and very pernicious to networks and advertisers, was the invention of the remote control which first appeared in 1983. For the first time viewers were able to take control, flip channels and avoid commercials.

Meanwhile, with satellites now in orbit around the Earth, news reports became instant and the world shrank. Television made us see more and made some of us care more.

When the Chinese students were trying to democratise their world we saw it happening live. In fact, we knew of the events in Tiananmen Square before people elsewhere in Beijing did.

There was much more television too. British commercial television’s second channel (Channel 4) was launched on Tuesday 2 November 1982 at 4:45 pm.

The very first programme broadcast was Countdown with Richard “twice nightly” Whiteley and Carol Vorderman (then Mather), long before she turned up on every other programme and commercial in Britain.

Breakfast TV was introduced in the UK in 1983. The IBA created a franchise for a national station to run for three hours each morning.  It was awarded to TV-AM, a new TV company which featured on screen the Famous Five: David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Robert Kee, Anna Ford, and Angela Rippon.

Meanwhile, cable and satellite networks were being established, and by the close of the eighties, the box in the living room (and the ones in the bedrooms and the kitchen) became unquestionably the main source of our entertainment.


Title Channel Date Audience (Millions)
1 EastEnders BBC1 25/12/1986 30.15
2 Royal Wedding Ceremony BBC1/ITV 29/07/1981 28.40
3 Coronation Street ITV 19/03/1989 26.93
4 Dallas BBC1 22/11/1980 21.60
5 To the Manor Born BBC1 09/11/1980 21.55
6 Bread BBC1 04/12/1988 20.97
7 Neighbours BBC1 04/04/1989 20.92
8 Just Good Friends BBC1 25/12/1986 20.75
9 News BBC1 25/11/1984 20.42
10 Only Fools and Horses BBC1 25/12/1989 20.12
11 The Benny Hill Show ITV 07/01/1981 20.00
12 This Is Your Life ITV 02/01/1980 19.75
13 Porridge (repeat) BBC1 27/12/1984 19.36
14 My Wife Next Door (repeat) BBC1 18/01/1980 19.30
15 Jim’ll Fix It BBC1 01/03/1980 19.20
16 Mastermind BBC1 09/11/1980 19.15
17 A Question of Sport BBC1 05/02/1987 19.05
18 Blankety Blank BBC1 26/12/1980 19.05
19 Open All Hours BBC1 06/10/1985 18.96
20 Wish You Were Here ITV 02/01/1985 18.95