It was the decade of big hair, big phones, pastel suits, Cabbage Patch Kids, Rubik’s cubes, Yuppies, Air Jordans, shoulder pads and Pac Man. More importantly it was an era of iconic moments that changed the world
The upcoming 8-part documentary series The Eighties explores the cultural, political, and news events that shaped the decade. The series starts with a 2-part examination of 80s TV, followed by weekly episodes focused on technology, music videos, President Reagan, the rise of the AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, and the 'Greed is Good' attitude that defined the decade.
Thinking about The Eighties, which starts on SBS on Wednesday 8 February, we've assembled this list of definitive 1980s moments.
Dallas and M*A*S*H pull record audiences
Three iconic TV events of the decade stand tall, two of them from the genius (or is that devious?) minds of the Dallas writers’ room.
After the infamous “Who Shot J.R?” episode aired 21 March 1980, viewers had to wait eight months to find out if the Ewing patriarch played by Larry Hagman would survive and who done it. Over 80 million people tuned in. Then in 1986, Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) was resurrected after being killed off the previous season. In true soapie fashion, the intervening episodes were written off as a (very long) dream.
But after an 11 season run it was the finale of M*A*S*H, on 28 February 1983 that broke all ratings records. With an audience of almost 106 million, it was a TV record unbeaten until 2010.
I want my MTV
MTV: Music Television launched on August 1, 1981 with the now iconic and ironic “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles the first music video to air.
MTV would revolutionise the way music was consumed and how seminal artists of the decade like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince would express their creativity and promote their work on high rotation. The music video became an art form in its own right, Thriller a prime example.
MTV was a platform for boundary pushing tailor-made for the likes of Madonna who famously cavorted around burning crucifixes in 1989’s Like A Prayer video. A sign of the times, MTV’s programming today is dominated by reality TV.
Ted Turner launched his 24-hour Cable News Network on 1 June 1980, a move that would forever change news coverage, some might argue not always for the better.
Now you could get your news fix whenever you liked (a kind of forebear to the internet) without having to wait until the 6pm bulletin. CNN set the template for round-the-clock live news coverage and the minutiae that comes from having to fill 24 hours of programming. Competition between networks was fierce and sensationalism and opinion journalism proliferated. If not for CNN, we may never have experienced the balanced nuance of Fox News!
The tech boom of the 1980’s saw personal computing come into its own. With the launch of IBM’s first PC in August 1981, a tech revolution that would change the world began. Time Magazine knew what was going on, going off-piste to put the computer on its cover as “Machine of the Year” in 1982, rather than the usual iconic human (Apple’s Steve Jobs was convinced it would be him).
The Commodore 64 PC quickly made its mark upon its launch in 1982 dominating the PC market and Apple made a major play for market share airing the famous “1984” Super Bowl commercial in January of that year to launch the boxy Macintosh, forever enshrining “Mac” and “Mac or PC?” into the lexicon.
The first thing you might think of when it comes to the genesis of the mobile phone - or cell - is a slicked-back businessman getting shoulder fatigue as he lugs his “brick” along Wall Street. Not surprising given it was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, released in 1983, that Michael Douglas donned as Gordon Gekko in 1987’s Wall Street.
That phone weighed close to one kilogram! Imagine carrying a bag of potatoes by your ear? It’s hard to believe that this contraption would become the compact object of our obsession it is today. For that we can thank the brave physical sacrifice of men and women who lugged those bad boys around in the name of portable communication.
Wonder soon turned to horror on 28 January 1986 when NASA’s Challenger Mission, the space programme’s 10th, was tragically snuffed out when the shuttle combusted just 73 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven astronauts on board. It was particularly harrowing for the millions of school children watching live across the nation.
President Ronald Reagan highlighted this in his powerful address to the nation.
“I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery.”
President Reagan assassination attempt
Just two months into his presidency, President Reagan was the target of an assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. It was 30 March 1981 and Reagan had just stepped out of Washington D.C.’s Hilton Hotel after an official engagement when Hinkley, only about three metres away, started shooting. Reagan was hit in the chest, just centimetres from his heart.
Reagan believed his survival was thanks to divine intervention. His near-death experience was a reminder of how different history could have been without his conviction to end the Cold War.
Berlin Wall falls
“Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall.” This was the iconic entreaty to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev delivered by Reagan in Berlin in 1987. Almost two and a half years later, the Berlin Wall that had divided East and West Germany since 1961 would fall on 9 November 1989, beginning a thawing of the Cold War.
Weeks later at a New Year’s Eve concert, David Hasselhoff would become an unlikely symbol of freedom and democracy belting out ‘Looking For Freedom’ from atop the Berlin Wall in a jacket with flashing lights.
The AIDS Epidemic
On 5 June 1981, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the first official report on what would come to be known as the AIDS epidemic.
The tragedy of the scourge was all too evident in the statistics. By the end of 1981, 121 people had died in the US. By the end of 1983 it was 1,292. In 1989, 100,000 cases of the disease had been reported Stateside.
The US Food and Drug Administration approved the first antiretroviral drug for HIV.37 in 1987 and in 1988 plans were underway for a national HIV/AIDS care system as reported cases continued to skyrocket.
Wall Street Crash
The decade of greed and excess was marked by Wall Street’s great crash of 1987. Between October 14 and 19 approximately $US1 trillion of wealth was lost, in part due to untested financial instruments, with the crash making reverberations globally.
Just two months later, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street premiered and with it the immortal words of Gordon Gekko; “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
Revisit the 1980's in-depth in the upcoming documentary series The Eighties. Starts Wednesday 8 February on SBS.