Learning can be fun! At least, that’s what ABC wanted you to believe when it came to their educational programming. Their after school specials, which aired from 1972 to 1996, provided kids and teenagers with lessons in morality, saturated with corny catch phrases, all of which were delivered by countless teen idols.
The first ABC special was titled “Last of the Curlews.” It was a Hanna-Barbera animated feature concerning the plight of the curlews, a fictional bird species, who were slowly becoming extinct. So while American children empathized with this non-existent avian race, they surreptitiously learned about ecology and environmental problems. Adults everywhere were shocked by the concept’s genius, and the cartoon went on to win an Emmy award in 1973 for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming.
Specials continued to be produced, sometimes in animated form but mostly as live-action installments, often performed by the network’s young primetime stars (think Scott Baio, Val Kilmer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kristy McNichol). But as the series progressed the programs became overtly moralizing and ridiculously over dramatic in their portrayal of contemporary issues. It didn’t help that the episodes sported ungainly titles like, “Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom;” “The Boy Who Drank Too Much;” and “My Dad Can’t Be Crazy (Can He?)”.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the TV movies taught generations of Americans valuable lessons about pretty much everything, from proper nutrition to the dangers of drug and alcohol.