Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett: How They Changed Television

The not-unexpected passing of Farrah Fawcett and the shocking sudden death of Michael Jackson on Thursday stir all kinds of emotional responses - among them wistful nostalgia for those decades in which they both became pop-culture icons. Those were the days -- when talented people worked for years to become "overnight" sensations without the instant celebrity options of the digital era. I think it's fair to say that many of the young personalities who dominate movies, music and television today would never have enjoyed such success without benefit of the Internet. Fawcett and Jackson rose to the top and achieved legendary success the old-fashioned way. They earned it one performance at a time.

Both were plagued by ugly rumors and outsize scandals throughout their too-brief lives. I'll leave all that for eager bloggers and tabloid reporters to gobble up and regurgitate for public consumption, though I would like to see more seasoned journalists respectfully dig in to the details of Fawcett's and Jackson's recent medical histories. True, there are privacy issues at play, but Jackson famously loved the spotlight and Fawcett starred in a 2005 reality series that chronicled the intimate details of her life, so there is wiggle room here. I suspect there is valuable information to be gleaned from the challenges they faced and perhaps a painful lesson or two to be learned beyond the details revealed in the filmed documentation of Fawcett's cancer ordeal and the outcome of Jackson's autopsy report.

Much is being said (over and over again) about their contributions to popular culture, but through it all I find myself focusing in on the specific impacts Fawcett and Jackson had on television. Fawcett's series, Charlie's Angels, on which she starred for only one season (with several guest appearances in its second year), was a major component of ABC's legendary ascendency to the most powerful and influential broadcast network in the mid-late Seventies (when there were only three). Along with Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Three's Company, Charlie's Angels did much to tear the media spotlight (and millions of viewers) away from CBS, the home for much of that decade of such first-class fare as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Maude, The Waltons and M*A*S*H. Under the direction of network president Fred Silverman (who moved to over ABC from CBS in 1975), the Alphabet Net was suddenly the place to be, and the spectacularly appealing Fawcett (her image frozen forever in time on her iconic poster) had much to do with that. After she left Charlie's Angels, Fawcett went on to star in many of the best television movies of the period.

Similarly, Jackson -- already a household name as the youngest member of the Jackson 5 -- helped propel MTV into the pop-culture pantheon the early Eighties. MTV energized television during the early years of cable, but Jackson super-charged MTV itself with a series of dazzling music videos, then an exciting new art form. (On a broader scale, music videos changed everything about television, from children's programming to prime time content to commercials.) That was the time when young people would leave their cable boxes on MTV waiting for their favorite videos, just as their parents had left their radios tuned to certain stations waiting for their favorite songs. Jackson's videos were on everyone's must-see list, and all activity often halted in a room when one of them came on. The debut on MTV in December, 1983 of Jackson's 14-minute long Thriller video - still widely praised as the best music video ever -- was one of those television events people anticipated for weeks and gathered together to enjoy.

Also in 1983, millions of television viewers went wild when Jackson moon-walked across the stage of Radio City Music Hall during NBC's telecast of Motown's 25th Anniversary Special. That performance still turns up on lists of the most memorable moments in television history. Appearances by and interviews with Jackson (especially interviews in which Jackson addressed issues involving his personal life) would continue to command huge television audiences for another 25 years.

I saw Fawcett in the 1985 Off-Broadway production of Extremities in which she played a woman who captured and tormented a man who attacked her. She was galvanizing and received a standing ovation at the end of the show. (This was many years before New York theater audiences began routinely giving standing ovations to the casts of virtually every successful play, especially those with celebrities in the lead roles.) I expected to see her six years later during the January 1991 Television Critics Association tour on behalf of the midseason CBS sitcom Good Sports, in which she co-starred with longtime companion Ryan O'Neal. Strangely, there was no session scheduled for that program, this at a time when networks made every effort to include all new series and most returning shows during their TCA days. When I asked various publicists and executives who were associated with the show why Fawcett and O'Neal weren't in attendance they responded with eye-rolls, shoulder shrugs and/or shudders. No words were spoken and no explanations given. Fourteen years later I attended TV Land's TCA session for the reality series Chasing Farrah, and Fawcett's appearance was a highlight of that tour. She seemed a bit off that day. We were told she had a cold. Regardless, it was a thrill to be in the same space with an icon from my youth and one of the stars of one of the most powerful pieces of theater I had ever seen.

I never had the opportunity to see Jackson perform live, but I was sitting in the front center orchestra at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City when Jackson opened the show with his wife Lisa Marie Presley. I don't know how it played on television, but their passionate kiss - intended to prove that their marriage was not a sham, as had been rumored in the press -- made the crowd around me decidedly uneasy. As with my Fawcett experience in 2005, it didn't matter to me. All I cared about was that I was watching the King of Pop in what turned out to be one of the countless unforgettable moments in entertainment history for which he would be responsible.

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