February 14, 2017

Mama's Family: From Network TV Also-Ran to Star of Syndicated TV

During the 1970's, analog broadcast television (and that's pretty much all that existed, as cable and satellite TV wouldn't really appear for more than a decade, and digital wouldn't emerge until the 2000's) was dominated by the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC, all of which were evolved from successful, national radio networks a generation earlier), PBS and in some metropolitan areas, so-called "independent" stations (these often appeared on the UHF channel spectrum, where there was considerable broadcast capacity) which focused mainly on local news programs, occasional local programs and a battery of network television re-runs long before TV Land would even claim the space.

Although News Corp. converted a number of previously "independent" television stations to Fox television in the 1980's, and other networks including Paramount and Warner Brothers followed the same path before bowing out in the late 1990's as a drain they couldn't make work work financially, there was some programming success from independent TV stations, and those shows sometimes went into syndication.  Some examples include the seventies children's program The Magic Garden which originally aired on New York's WPIX (Channel 11), and Sally Jessy Raphael (later shortened to simply Sally) daytime talk show which ran during the 1980's, having begun on the KSDK-TV (Channel 5) NBC affiliate in St. Louis before quickly moving into national syndication.

Broadcast syndication is the licensing of the right to broadcast television programs without going through a broadcast network.  The success of broadcast syndication peaked in the 1970's and 1980's.  Some of the best-known syndicated television shows included various game-shows, among them: Hollywood Squares, Name that Tune (in which a young vocalist then named Kathy Lee Crosby née Epstein sang tunes the contestants had to guess; she is perhaps better known by her more recent married surname of Gifford, and is famous for her work as a top-rated morning network TV show host), The Gong Show, Wheel of Fortune and others, including a number of different musical-variety shows starring the likes of Dolly Parton, Andy Williams and Sha Na Na, as well as more traditional TV programming including Jim Henson's The Muppet Show, and Mama's Family, which was spun-off from the popular 'The Family' skits that aired on The Carol Burnett Show, as well as Charles in Charge, Silver Spoons, Webster, Too Close for Comfort, and What's Happening!!.

Like Mama's Family, which first began as a series on network television (NBC), some syndicated TV shows saw new life in syndication after being dropped by network television, including 9 to 5, which originally aired on ABC, but was later rebooted for syndicated television distribution, as well as The Nanny which began on CBS and was later run in syndication, principally on the Lifetime cable network.  Mama's Family's subsequent success is impressive since it came in spite of the absence of such famous stars as Carol Burnett, Betty White and Rue McClanahan (the latter two left to star in The Golden Girls, see https://goo.gl/DD3pCP for more).

In addition to game shows and sitcoms, some animated shows ran in syndication, too, including the cartoons Underdog (which started as a network program that ran on NBC), He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Pink Panther.  Meanwhile, syndication also brought us a number of talk-shows, including the most successful late-night talk-show The Arsenio Hall Show, as well as the daytime talk-shows including Sally, Morton Downey, Jr. and Rosie O'Donnell, which had brief periods of impressive ratings and influence; while others, such as Oprah Winfrey and Maury Povich, had a much more sustained run.

As already noted, one of syndicated broadcast television's more popular programs was Mama's Family, which had its origins as a popular skit called The Family that ran on The Carol Burnett Show.  That program had a brief run on network television (NBC), but was even more successful in syndication.  First-run syndication in the 1970’s made it possible for some shows that were no longer wanted by TV networks to remain on the air.  The syndicated version of Mama's Family garnered substantially higher ratings than did its network version, eventually becoming the highest-rated sitcom in first-run syndication.  Set in the fictitious southern town of Raytown, many have speculated it could be Raytown, Missouri, but that town is in Kansas City suburbs, not the rural Ozarks locale on the Arkansas border that is most likely the Raytown of the show.  For the record, the actual address for the house featured on Mama's Family in the intro (at least the home in one of the show's iterations, Seasons 1 and 2 were on NBC while subsequent seasons were released in syndication) was in the Los Angeles area, specifically at 1027 Montrose Avenue, South Pasadena, CA 91030.  Its never stated specifically where Raytown is in the show itself, leaving it up to the viewers to decide.

The Me-TV network featured a 30-second story/summary of Mama's Family which can be viewed below, or at https://youtu.be/CeL1YkgKp3o:

In 2016, after a several-year hiatus from cable and broadcast television (in most markets, anyway), reruns of Mama's Family returned to television.  As of 2017, the show was airing on Me-TV as well as MTV's Logo cable network.  Also, in 2013, the entire series of Mama's Family (both its network seasons 1 and 2 which originally aired on NBC, and the subsequent reboot in syndication) was released on DVD.  Previously, only Season 1 had been released on DVD by Warner Bros. Home Video, but DVD releases of all subsequent seasons were delayed, as various legal entanglements kept the remainder of series from being released on DVD.  Those issues were finally resolved in late 2012, and resulted in the series being released by mail order initially, and subsequently retail distribution.  The mail order DVD series had some cast reunions (at least the cast from the syndicated iteration of the show, including regulars Vicki Lawrence, Ken Berry and Dorothy Lyman) from the syndicated iteration, but excluded Vinton 'Buzz' Harper, Jr. (played by Eric Brown) and Sonja Harper (played by Karin Argoud)  The syndicated iteration of the show included the delinquent grandson from Thelma Harper's daughter Eunice and her husband Ed Higgins named Bubba (played by Allan Kayser), and also included prissy neighbor Iola Boylen (played by Beverly Archer).  The DVD release of the series has one of those reunions.  The promotional video for the collection can be seen below, or by visiting https://imdb.to/2EcQUdL. Note that the promo ends at 1:51, you can stop at that point.

Me-TV's website also has an entertaining personality test which asks users a series of questions about which character from all of Mama's Family is most like you.  Visit that at https://www.metv.com/quiz/which-mamas-family-member-are-you to take the quiz.

Note that Carol Burnett's official YouTube channel has a number of original "The Family" skits which aired on The Carol Burnett Show, considered the origins for Mama's Family.  Visit https://goo.gl/X1rb2F to watch some of the classic skits!

Author P.S., December 1, 2018: There was news today that actor and dancer Ken Berry, who was perhaps best known to kids who grew up during the eighties as the actor who played Vinton Harper on TV's "Mama's Family" passed away today at age 85. He was also known for his prior work on the sixties sitcom "F Troop" as well as occasional TV commercials in between longer-term television work. The family did not disclose a cause of death. The full obituary was published in Variety, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times among other publications.

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