When Norman Lear Took a Boston-Made TV Show National
Legendary television producer Norman Lear has passed away at the age of 101, and left his mark on the industry that will be felt for generations to come.
As the producer of programs such as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son, One Day at a Time and so many more, Lear set the tone for America in the 1970s with television that not only offered entertainment but also provided much-needed social commentary for the time.
Lear made the decades-old sitcom format feel fresh and new, and he never stopped looking for ways to innovate. In just the past few years, he produced special live performances of classic scripts from All in the Family and The Jeffersons and a reboot of One Day at a Time.
Once upon a time, Lear also took a sitcom that was being locally produced in Boston and put it on a national stage, albeit briefly. The Baxters was a very innovative program but was perhaps a bit too ahead of its time.
The Baxters was created by Hubert Jessup, a Harvard Divinity School graduate. The program was produced in-house by Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5.
It was part of the station’s late-70s initiative to produce its own programming rather than rely on first-run syndication and network reruns, overseen by General Manager Bob Bennett, whom Lear once told the New York Times was “the best local broadcaster in the nation.”
The show told the story of the Baxter family, an average American family facing the social issues of the day. The first 15 minutes of the program would be the family tackling whatever the issue was that week; the second 15 minutes would feature a live studio audience interacting with panelists to discuss that issue in depth.
The show premiered on WCVB in 1977 and aired there until the first half of 1979. The program caught the attention of Lear, who at the time had at least half a dozen shows on network television.
Lear took over The Baxters and sold it into first-run syndication for the 1979-80 television season, bringing its unique format to a national audience. While he kept the split sitcom-talk show format, he did bring in a new cast and changed the characters.
After one season, Lear sold the show to a Canadian production company, which again recast the show but kept the format. It only lasted one more season before the plug was pulled.
Lear changed the landscape of television and what TV could be, and although the Baxters were never as big as the Bunkers, the Jeffersons or the Evans family, it’s nice to know that Lear, a New Haven, Connecticut native, was able to recognize when a local Boston station was doing the same.
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