So much of what we call “premium TV” today has its roots in “Hill Street Blues.” The emphasis on character, the serialized storytelling, the mixture of drama and humor, the ensemble cast — much of what we take for granted today was a revelation back in the early 1980s when “HSB” first appeared on NBC’s schedule.
No one expected “Hill Street” to become what it was, and the police drama started out its career on Saturday night in midseason 1980-81, the same year that I began my career as a young punk in the NBC research department.
Legend has it that the “Hill Street” pilot screened exceptionally well among the executives in May 1980. Problem was that the pilot testing was not very good. Al Ordover, who was the No. 2 guy in research and responsible for the program testing, rewrote the test results to put the most positive spin possible on the show. Back then, as is still true today, testing matters more than people may think.
Like the “Seinfeld” pilot test, it is often difficult to evaluate something that seems to deviate from the norm of what you expect in a television show. Deviating from the norm doesn’t automatically make something great, but you need to be able to distinguish among the rule breakers. In the case of both shows, the right decision was made.
The other thing I remember about the “HSB” pilot testing was that Bobby Hill and Andy Renko were gunned down and allegedly killed at the end of the episode. They were the two strongest testing characters in the pilot, and it was recommended that they return for the series. Something similar happened with Julianna Margulies (Carol Hathaway) in the “ER” pilot.
“Hill Street Blues” was moved to Thursday to start the 1981-82 season, and in midseason, “Fame” was the 8 p.m. show on the night. In 1982-83 NBC added “Cheers” to Thursday (along with “Taxi” from ABC), and the rest is history.
For almost 30 years, three dramas occupied the Thursday 10 p.m. time slot on our most important night: “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” (in December of 1986, the night the Masked Daughter was born) and “ER” (1994). The first two of those dramas came from Steven Bochco. Along with “NYPD Blue” he created or co-created three of the most compelling dramas on television which stand up to the greats of the current era.
I never had the opportunity to meet him during my years at NBC, but if anyone epitomized Grant Tinker’s declaration “First be best, then be first,” it was Steven Bochco. He changed the world of television and, in doing so, our culture.
Bochco died Sunday at age 74; he had been suffering from leukemia. Peace to him.