40 Years Ago: CBS Yanks the Plug on ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’
By the time the last episode of WKRP in Cincinnati aired on April 21, 1982, the network had pulled the plug, a fate the classic sitcom’s titular radio station had managed to avoid for four, perennially beleaguered seasons.
Ending on a cliffhanger that serves more to restore the series’ status quo, the episode, entitled “Up and Down the Dial,” sees stalwart burnout DJ Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) outmaneuvering the AM station’s imperious owner Mrs. Carlson’s plan to switch from rock 'n' roll to an all-news format, threatening to blackmail her with the knowledge that she’d never intended for her milquetoast station owner adult son, Arthur, to be a success. Holding the fact that all her talk about Arthur (Gordon Jump) making something of himself in the radio world was a mere smoke screen for WKRP’s intended position as a money-losing tax dodge, Fever yanks the rug out from under the series’ primary antagonist, and looks prepared to ensure that he and his KRP colleagues can keep on rocking the Queen City.
It’s a nifty twist to an episode that begins with programming director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) pulling a switcheroo by gathering everybody in his office for an ominous-sounding meeting, before revealing the latest ratings have the once-lowly WKRP in an astounding (for them) sixth place. (Johnny’s number one in the station’s key demo, leading to him excitedly telling Loni Anderson’s unflappable receptionist Jennifer, “Look what I’m doing with teenage boys!”) Since WKRP can never bask in its rare victories for long, however, a dour visitor announces himself to Andy as WKRP’s new news director, with everyone at the station being offered meager jobs in the new, all-news hierarchy. Tim Reid’s smooth and sophisticated nighttime DJ Venus Flytrap is pegged as the traffic guy, much to his horror.
Taking its title from the theme song’s lonely lament about the nomadic life of a radio pro in a world of unstable gigs and frequent format shuffles, “Up and Down the Dial” nevertheless hints that Andy, Johnny, Venus and the rest of the WKRP gang have found a more or less permanent home. Indeed, when the episode was filmed, creator Hugh Wilson and his team were confident that their show had found a home, too. At least for another season.
With plans to shift the sitcom’s focus from the difficulties of running a perennially downtrodden, bottom-dwelling radio station to the equal or greater challenges of running a successful and profitable one, Wilson and company were geared up to take WKRP (and WKRP in Cincinnati) into the '80s and beyond.
Instead, CBS turned off the juice. It would be unexpected if the network hadn’t spent WKRP’s entire run undermining what turned out to be a much more sophisticated and better show than the wacky workplace sitcom CBS initially imagined. The first eight episodes’ ratings were bad enough for the show to get pulled for the dreaded “retooling,” but, when Wilson brought the show back from forced hiatus, very little had changed, apart from the interior of the station expanded to facilitate the staff’s quickly jelling chemistry, and Wilson’s determination to broaden both the series’ comic and surprisingly dramatic palette.
In addition to the series' initial broader comic moments (the all-time classic “Turkeys Away” came right before the hiatus), WKRP felt free to incorporate real-life issues facing the radio and music industry (payola, right-wing censorship, ratings-driven programming consultants), heavier topics (domestic violence, alcoholism, suicide and even transgenderism) and occurrences like the very real-world tragedy that took place in Cincinnati during the show’s run, when unregulated “festival seating” saw a stampede at a 1979 Who concert, resulting in the deaths of 11 concertgoers.
Watch a Scene From the Final Season of 'WKRP in Cincinnati'
Along the way, WKRP found room for everything from a Christmas Carol episode (where the Big Guy finds out what the station would be like without him, after accidentally downing one of Johnny’s brownies) to a two-part The Sting-like heist picture (where the staff works together to acquire the secret changing room shots of Jennifer taken by a sleazy photographer during a promo shoot) to a prescient and stylistically bold parody of reality TV and mockumentaries where obnoxious ad man Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) is confronted with his family and workplace’s feelings about him when a TV documentary crew chooses the Tarleks as a subject.
Initially planned as something of a star vehicle for Sandy as the amiably levelheaded Santa Fe programmer Andy Travis (his name taken from a real radio-exec friend of former radio pro Wilson), WKRP rapidly took advantage of its uniformly stellar ensemble. Hesseman’s Dr. Johnny Fever is the quintessential DJ lifer, with all the varied and sketchy comic backstory that entails. Reid’s Venus is initially something of a stereotype, with the actor and the writers gradually filling in a backstory for why the flashy night man has adopted his persona. Reid turns in a tour de force performance in the late Season One episode “Who Is Gordon Sims?,” which reveals not just the DJ’s real name, but also why he’s so invested in keeping his identity obscured. (Reid also reteamed with Wilson for 1987’s Frank’s Place, another ahead-of-its-time sitcom that similarly failed to win network support.)
Anderson’s preternaturally competent Jennifer Marlowe turns the “dumb blonde secretary” cliche inside out, to magnificent comic effect. (Anderson never had as good a role.) Meanwhile, Jan Smithers remains the prototypically formidable ’70s liberated woman, frequently (and, for TV at the time, uniquely) stumping for progressive causes like the Equal Rights Amendment, while proving more than a match for the bombshell Jennifer in attracting male characters’ (and viewers’) admiration. Her never-consummated flirtation with Johnny provides one of television’s all-time greatest well-earned laugh lines. When Johnny’s on-air stunt costs him his broadcasting confidence, his response to the station's multitasking Bailey telling him to speak as if only to her sees Johnny bashfully announcing, “Hello and good afternoon, Cincinnati. I sure would like to take you home and kiss you all over in the dark.”
Richard Sanders’ turn as the station’s conservative and incompetent newshound Les Nessman and Bonner’s as the boorishly ubiquitous would-be office Romeo (and, as we’d now term him, sexual harasser) both manage to find unlikely humanity in a couple of all-time comic foils. And Jump’s Arthur Carlson never comes around to enjoy the raucous direction of his station under Andy but learns to appreciate the people under him, even standing up to his mother on occasion.
Watch a Scene From the Final Episode of 'WKRP in Cincinnati'
“Up and Down the Dial” doesn’t seek to serve all of the show’s characters equally, another indication that Wilson was sure he’d have time to continue exploring WKRP’s staff. Like Sports Night years later, the twist ending here hinges on a plutocrat’s unlikely largess. Where show-within-a-self-titled-show Sports Night’s seeming demise is saved by an outside billionaire deciding that broadcasting excellence and ambition are more important than big profits, WKRP (the station and the show) are apparently reprieved by Mother Carlson’s last-minute decision that breaking her loyal but childish son’s heart isn’t worth the tax break.
Unfortunately for both excellent, behind-the-scenes series, the real world doesn’t work that way, leaving WKRP in Cincinnati’s seemingly rosier fate abruptly cut off by the cold knife of commerce and network indifference. In the end, Andy and Venus, having spent their apparent last day of employment getting resentfully hammered, show up at Mrs. Carlson’s mansion, where Sandy lets loose Andy’s long-simmering resentment with a magnificently slurred and drawling, “I’m tired of your crud ... ,” before finally crumpling with the sloshed Venus to the floor.
WKRP did return in 1991, with Wilson creating a syndicated sequel series, ultimately renamed The New WKRP in Cincinnati. It was a similarly ambitious effort to cope with the changing radio business, but, with only Sanders, Bonner and Jump returning as regulars (Anderson, Hesseman and Reid popped in here and there), it was something of a disappointing reunion that lasted 47 underwhelming episodes.
At least, in selling The New WKRP to syndication, Wilson didn’t have to deal with CBS, whose constant meddling with the show’s time slot found the cast complaining that even they didn’t know when it would be on. Adding insult to that crippling injury, music rights kept WKRP off of home media for decades, with, initially, only the first season receiving a DVD release, and that was marred by generic filler music and entire missing scenes (or scenes with soundalike actors when the original rock tracks couldn’t be removed.) Thankfully, Shout! ponied up for about 85 percent of the individual music rights when it finally released a full DVD box set in 2015, allowing WKRP in Cincinnati to reclaim its place on the cultural dial as one of the best sitcoms ever made.