Look at this incredible piece of 1990s television and VHS memorabilia!
This isn’t a super recent find; I came across it at a thrift store some months back, but man, I knew, knew it had to come home with me. And so it did! The content is right up my alley, and it’s still sealed, too! The price? Under a buck! Cool winnins!
As you can see, it’s a promotional VHS presented by both Diet Coke and CBS, given out in advance of the 1997 television season. Yep, this was the fall line-up on CBS! While out and about hunting for tapes, sometimes it’s easy for me to forget how neat they can be, especially after passing the 9000th copy of Titanic, but this is definitely one of the good’uns.
What’s really amazing about this, from a personal standpoint, is that even though I myself didn’t own this video back in the day, I remember so much of that ’97 CBS line-up. Even what I didn’t watch myself, I vividly recall being ‘around’ nevertheless. Advertisements in TV Guide and what have you.
But listen, this isn’t going to be a big huge full in-depth review of the tape, and for one very simple reason: I refuse to crack the shrinkwrap, man! I just can’t do it. I’ve never come across one of these before, and currently there’s only one like it on eBay…for a whopping $35! Whether that means it’s actually rare or not, I couldn’t say, though I doubt it; there was a time when preview cassettes (and later, DVDs) like this were fairly commonplace. Maybe still are, I don’t know. Nevertheless, my copy is going to stay minty sealed fresh – though I’m stretching the term minty here, since my copy is a little beat-up and dirty. Evidently someone did not appreciate the majesty of this tape the way yours truly does!
(Looking on eBay, it appears CBS released preview tapes such as this for several years. I’m not going to say I’ll go out of my way for any others, but should I come across them while thrifting, well, that’s a no-brainer purchase for sure.)
So, the front cover. The whole thing is apparently hosted by Ray Romano, whose sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond was steadily picking up steam around that time, if it hadn’t already. That was the season I started watching his show, though it was near the end of the year; actually, I think it had hit summer reruns when I first jumped on board. Anyway, it’s interesting to look back at the show in its earlier years; eventually it would be the cornerstone of CBS’ powerhouse Monday night line-up of sitcoms. (I watched the show avidly for years, though truth be told, it hasn’t worn particularly well for me.)
Cybill, the appropriately-named sitcom starring Cybill Shepherd, I never watched back in the day, though I caught some syndicated episodes in more recent times. Dellaventura and Michael Hayes were and are unknown to me outside of this cover, though the latter appears to feature David Caruso in some capacity, and that just puts the whole CSI: Miami pre-credits-pun thing in my head.
However, it’s the appropriate pictorial references to Meego and The Gregory Hines Show, neither of which I ever recall watching, that provide the real reason I’m so excited to own this tape. Y’see, there’s one very specific factor that makes this VHS a must-own, and it ain’t Ray Barone. Rather, the answer is found in Meego and Gregory The Hines Show, or to be precise, the block they were a part of…
Do ya see it?! Urkel! Yes, URKEL! The presence of Steve Urkel can only mean one thing: A Friday night block of sitcoms aimed at kids too young to go out and do anything else. That’s the pool CBS was jumping in that fall, and Family Matters was jumping with them.
Y’see, ABC’s Friday night sitcoms, deemed TGIF, was a big deal for quite some time. I absolutely grew up with it, and there’s a good chance you did too. I certainly have my share of nostalgic memories pertaining to the line-up (well, various line-ups), though in this more jaded day and age, it may be hard for some modern audiences to understand just why TGIF was such a dominate force. It was though, and while by no means was he the only reason, a big, big factor in that TGIF dominance was indeed Steve Urkel.
Meant to be a one-time-only character on a show that was supposedly facing cancellation, Jaleel White’s uber-nerd Steve Urkel instead became the de facto face of Family Matters and, for a time, a legit cultural phenom. Dude totally saved the series, stole the spotlight from ostensible star
Al Powell Reginald Vel Johnson, got his own dolls, his own cereal, even his own novelty dance! Mystery Science Theater 3000 later brilliantly ripped into the (inexplicable?) phenomenon, and admittedly the Urkel character grew tiresome (and the storylines of Family Matters more insane) as the series progressed into the mid and late-1990s, but there’s no denying that, for a few years there, Urkel was one of the faces of ’90s television.
But you know what? I still like Family Matters! Oh sure, much of that has to do with nostalgia, the show was a big part of my childhood for sure, but as dumb (and crazy) as it could occasionally be, I still find myself enjoying it when I watch nowadays. Indeed, I’d say Family Matters is the definitive TGIF show, or at least tied with Boy Meets World. (Sorry Full House, you lose.) If you didn’t grow up during the 1990s, I’m not sure you’d get it, but those of us that were there, we know. Maybe. I do, at any rate.
ANYWAY, for the fall of ’97 CBS managed to snag Family Matters and other-TGIF-mainstay Step By Step from ABC and used them to headline the “CBS Block Party,” their very own attempt at a TGIF-ish line-up. Truth be told, both shows, and TGIF in general, were a little long-in-the-tooth by 1997 (and in my particular case, I was about to discover Son of Ghoul, which left little time for anything else Friday evenings), but there was a residual name-factor at play, so along with Meego and The Gregory Hines Show, CBS acquired Family Matters and Step By Step and proceeded to take TGIF head-on.
Annnnd it didn’t really work. None of the shows lasted beyond that season – some spectacularly so (Meego only made it six episodes!). Family Matters wound up being placed on hiatus mid-season, with the remaining episodes burned off during the summer of ’98. Still, despite the ultimate failure, as an experiment in late-90s programming and featuring two very 1990s shows, the CBS Block Party is an interesting subject to look back on, if nothing else. (Furthermore, while TGIF lived on, it was never really the same, though Boy Meets World continued to fight the good fight).
And that my friends is why this tape is such an important find for yours truly: It represents a piece of nostalgia tied directly into a programming experiment that ultimately didn’t fly. I couldn’t ask for anything more!
But what about the other shows promoted on the back cover of the tape? The Bryant Gumbel thing and Brooklyn South, I can’t say much about those. But Cosby and George & Leo I absolutely remember. Coming a few years after his previous, far more popular sitcom, Cosby I caught now and then, but frankly never thought it was very good. George & Leo, however, I liked a lot. It only lasted that single season, but I enjoyed it, and looking back, it was my first entry into what would end up being an endearing Bob Newhart fandom, though I wasn’t cognizant of that at the time.
So seeing all that plastered on the tape is an added bonus for me. Steve Urkel and Bob Newhart sharing the same stage? Did that ever happen prior? Or after, for that matter? Thas history, man.
Anyway, dig the helpfully included schedule on the back cover; it’s a veritable study in late-1990s television, albeit a CBS-centric one. (Well duh!) The only thing missing is David Letterman’s goofy smile to complete the package, though since this was the prime time line-up, his exclusion is understandable. Disregarding the shows I just don’t know much about, there’s not a whole lot listed that I actively hate. Except The Nanny. I detest The Nanny and always have. Also, I wonder how Don Johnson felt about Nash Bridges getting Step By Step as a lead-in? That’s not exactly a seamless transition!
Finally, I love the big WKBN TV-27 Youngstown sticker slapped on the back, even if they’re not quite my CBS affiliate (a WOIO sticker would have made this the ultimate). This isn’t unusual; the $35 copy on eBay demonstrates a sticker from the respective television market that one hails from, so tailoring these to local needs was evidently the norm. I would imagine this tape was made available for cheap (free?) in video stores, supermarkets, wherever VHS tapes were sold in WKBN’s market. I remember getting an NBC fall preview DVD in the early/mid-2000s at Best Buy, so I’ll go with that mindset regarding this CBS VHS.
On the surface, this may not seem like a “big” find, and in the grand scheme things, or at least in the grand scheme of my disturbingly large video collection, I guess it’s not. Nevertheless, it’s still amazing how this one transports me right back to the fall of 1997. Man, (I was in 5th grade! That’s mind-blowing to realize!) It’s a cool promotional representation of network television in the late-1990s, including some throwbacks to the earlier-1990s, as part of a TV experiment that ultimately didn’t take. Add in the looks at the shows that did take, and you’ve got an invaluable view of a very specific era in broadcasting. And I’m just going by the sleeve! I can only imagine what it’s like actually watching this!
I don’t know, maybe I should crack the shrinkwrap? Or do I dare hold out hope for a double instead? Oh the decisions that I must face!