'WKRP In Cincinnati' aired last new episode 40 years ago today
CBS canceled the beloved radio station sitcom after the show was taped, so "Up and Down The Dial" served as the series finale.
Baby, did you ever wonder if WKRP moved up higher than No. 6 in Cincinnati's radio ratings?
We never knew.
The "Up and Down The Dial" episode which aired April 21, 1982 — 40 years ago today — was the last original episode on CBS after four seasons of WKRP In Cincinnati.
After the show was taped, CBS canceled the comedy, which had bounced all over the primetime schedule. Yes, it wasn't easy living on the air in Cincinnati for WKRP.
In the "Up and Down" episode written by Cincinnati native Dan Guntzelman, fans learned owner Lillian "Mama" Carlson's (Carol Bruce) dirty little secret: She needed WKRP to be a financial failure despite encouraging her son Arthur (Gordon Jump) to lead the rock station to No. 1 in Cincinnati.
The staff's ratings' celebration was dampened by word that Mama Carlson planned to stop the music. She secretly had hired a news director to change the format to all news to compete against Cincinnati's established all-news station. Going all news would lose money for at least 18 months, she said.
"Profit and loss are merely theoretical terms in a diversified conglomerate like Carlson Industries," she explained to disc jockey Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman). "It's not the plus and minus, it's the plus and plus, if the minuses are played correctly."
To which wacked out Fever replied: "This is so deeply warped that even I get it. WKRP is not supposed to make money. That's the deal. We're set up to lose — but we didn't. And that's why we're changing the format. So you can lose money for two years."
Mama Carlson abruptly changed her mind on the format when her son walked in the room, and Fever threatened to tell him the truth.
What would have happened? We never knew — thanks to the incompetence of CBS, which never gave WKRP in Cincinnati a chance for viewers to find it in one place over four bumpy years. It started at 8 p.m. Mondays in September 1978 against two powerhouses, NBC's Little House on the Prairie and ABC's Welcome Back Kotter. Then CBS moved it 10 times to various time slots over four nights (Mondays, then Saturday, back to Monday, then to Wednesday) in the next 3-1/2 years.
"No other program in the history of network television was moved as much in its first four seasons," says a 1990's WKRP syndication sales press kit.
"It's gotten to be a bigger hit in syndication than it ever did on the air," creator Hugh Wilson told me in 1987.
Ironically, WKRP enjoyed some of its best success after the show was canceled. Airing at 8:30 p.m. Monday, WKRP won its time period from June to September, including beating ABC Monday Night Football.
But it was too late to get the band back together. Most of the cast had other commitments. After WKRP, Hesseman filmed Dr. Detroit with Dan Ackroyd; Gary Sandy starred on Broadway in Pirates of Penzance; Loni Anderson shot two movies; and Frank Bonner performed in Neil Simon's You Ought To Be In Pictures at Burt Reynold's Florida dinner theater and started his TV directorial career with an episode of Family Ties.
In 1986, Hesseman returned to TV starring as a teacher in ABC's Head of the Class and Anderson played a wealthy widow in NBC's Easy Street. Wilson produced Tim Reid's Frank Place set in a New Orleans restaurant in 1987.
Read more about WKRP in my "Celebrating 40 Years of WKRP" from September 2018, and my stories about Sparky Anderson being fired on WKRPin 1979 and Allen and Donna Stare's WKRP-Cast podcasttaking a deep dive into each half-hour episode and interviewing some WKRP writers, former guest stars and experts (including me).
Kent State University's WKSU-FM marks the 40th anniversary with former WKRP writer Steve Kampmann, who talks aboutwriting "The Concert" episode after The Who concert tragedy in Cincinnatito reporter Kabir Bhatia.