The Origins of the TGIF Friday-Night Lineup on ABC

Full House, Family Matter, Perfect Stranger, Step by Step; these were just some of the shows that made up the beloved TGIF lineup on ABC. Though TGIF feels more like a 90s institution, it really began in the 1980s with roots going all the way back to 1985.

TGIF was a specific programming block that aired on Friday nights on ABC from 8 pm to 10 pm and ran from 1989 to 2000. It was family-friendly and, thanks to hits like Full House and Family Matters, became a ratings success.

Planting the Seeds for the TGIF Friday Night Lineup

If you grew up in the 80s, you know how sacred Saturday mornings were, I’m sure your Saturday morning cartoon experience was similar. Each Saturday almost felt like a mini Christmas and I remember having trouble getting to sleep on Friday night. The cartoons that were waiting for us on Saturday morning were enough to keep you up. You couldn’t drag me out of bed for school on a weekday, but on Saturday morning, I was up at the crack of dawn.

We weren’t allowed to go downstairs until 7 am. But Saturday morning cartoons hadn’t even started yet. Where I was in Canada, we got old reruns of the Little Rascals and the Lone Ranger from the 1950s–and they were awesome.

But as we grew up through the 80s, our viewing habits changed. And Saturday Morning cartoons evolved into something else. Going into the 80s deregulation allowed for more advertising to children and this resulted in an explosion of pop culture–specifically toys and cartoons shows to sell them.

What we were watching on Saturday mornings, and after school, were really nothing more than 22-minute long commercials. But as we approached the latter part of the 80s, and early 90s, more of these restrictions were put back into place. Saturday mornings started to change and a variety of educational-based content was required to be shown on the networks. No offense to any of these shows, but give me He-Man any day of the week. 

The FTC was putting so many restrictions on cartoon shows, networks, and toy companies that they finally had enough and threw in the towel. That’s the basic underlying reason why Saturday morning cartoons disappeared. But also, the audience had grown up. If you were 7 in 1983, you were now a teenager by the end of the decade. Our interests and viewing habits changed. Cartoons and toys were something for kids–and we had grown out of that. Live-action programming like Good Morning, Miss Bliss–which is the show that turned into Saved by the Bell–was now capturing our interests. 

Shows like this were great. There was an audience for them and they were much cheaper for the networks to make compared to animation. It’s not that cartoons were completely gone from Saturday mornings in the later 80s, it’s just the landscape had changed. You may not remember the show Kidd Video, but it has an interesting connection to this changing landscape.

Kidd Video was a cartoon/live-action show all about a real-life band that gets transported to a cartoon world. I have an article all about this if you want to go back and check it out. The show featured cartoons, real actors, and music videos. It was the perfect combination of everything happening in the 80s and was used to appeal to the changing viewing audience.

Because it used cartoons, live-action, and featured teenage actors, Kidd Video was used to bridge the gap on Saturday Mornings between cartoons and the live-action programming. When Kidd Video came on, you knew the cartoon portion of the morning was over, and live-action programming was beginning. Kidd Video was not a massive hit, but its creation represented how the Saturday morning viewing audience was changing.  

The Changing TV Landscape

If Saturday mornings were hallowed ground for young people–and it had faded away–what would take its place? The seeds for TGIF were being planted. Growing up, we all had our routines and consistencies. Saturday morning cartoons were one of those beloved routines or rituals, as was after-school TV. I would race home after school to watch Gobots, GI Joe, and Transformers. But as I got older, the shows would change–but the routine remained. If you were like me, after-school cartoons evolved into watching the Brady Bunch or the New Mickey Mouse Club. Soon, a new ritual would become part of our weekly routine, and it took place on Friday nights.

We’ve seen the seeds for TGIF slowly being planted, but what put in motion the move to a specific night block of programming that would become an institution of its own and end up being copied by other networks? Well, it may have to do with the Wonderful World of Disney.

Besides Saturday mornings, Sunday nights were a big deal for my family during the 80s. We knew it as Disney’s Wonderful World and then the Magical World of Disney. There was also the Disney Sunday Movie. But whatever iteration it was, Sunday is that rare night when a family could sit down together and watch the same thing. This was the exact experience Jim Janicek had.

Janicek was a writer for ABC and part of his job in the 80s was to promote ABC programming on Tuesday and Friday nights. Family-based sitcoms were, of course, huge in the 80s, just think of Family Ties, Growing Pains, and Who’s the Boss. But they all aired on different nights. Many of these shows had the same energy and tone running throughout them. What if they were put in a block together?

This is when Janicek remembered the fond memories of growing up watching The Wonderful World of Disney with his family. Could this same approach work for family sitcoms? Janicek approached Bob Iger, president of ABC, with the idea. But what would be the best night for it? ABC had “Terrific Tuesdays,” which featured shows like Who’s the Boss, but also had more mature dramas like Moonlighting.

ABC also had some success on Friday nights with similar family-friendly comedies such as Webster, Benson (where an unknown comedian named Jerry Seinfeld played the role of Frankie), and Different Strokes. This was in the mid-80s, but by 1987, all of these shows had been canceled. 

The Origins of the TGIF Friday Night Lineup

They would need a new crop of shows that could fill this Friday night block. Fortunately, they already had one that was getting great traction. Perfect Strangers was the story of two very different cousins trying to co-exist together in Chicago. The show first debuted on March 25th, 1986. It started out on Tuesday nights, before moving to Wednesday nights in the fall of 1986. The show was possibly the perfect sitcom. It was light, airy, funny, and not too serious. It was one of those shows the whole family could watch together, and this was the case in my own household.

In March 1988, Perfect Strangers was moved to Friday nights. It wasn’t a massive hit, but regularly finished in the top 40 and had built up a solid fan base. The most important thing was that Perfect Stranger had the right tone the network was looking for. This was the blueprint and TGIF would be built around Perfect Strangers. 

Another important part of Perfect Stranger and TGIF has to do with the word Interstitials. Interstitial programs are short programs that air between movies or big events. They are also used on TV to connect two segments together. Think of Kang and Kodus–the aliens on the Simpsons Treehouse of Horrors Halloween episodes, or how Michael Eisner would appear during Sunday night Disney programming. The best way to think of people in interstitials is as hosts or emcees.

Perfect Strangers had been doing this for years. Larry and Balki would appear in character for these interstitials as far back as 1987. When they moved to Friday nights, the interstitials went with them and Larry and Balki would essentially be the hosts for the first season of TGIF. They could introduce the shows, tell you what to expect in that night’s episodes, and then check in as the night went on. It seems like a simple idea now, but was an accidentally smart move, as it gave more continuity throughout the entire programming block. These little segments would also tie in the holidays, specific themes, and be used to introduce future new shows. 

So Perfect Strangers was in place, but what other shows would be used for the TGIF lineup, which technically started during the 1988/89 seasons? Around the same time that Perfect Strangers was becoming an established hit, another show debuted. This one, set in San Francisco. It featured a widowed father of three who moves in with his brother-in-law and best friend. Full House debuted on the way back in September 1987.

The tone and style of Full House perfectly matched that of Perfect Strangers. Even the theme songs were similar, as they were both created by Jesse Frederick. Next in the TGIF lineup would be the solid standby: Mr. Belvedere. Mr. Belvedere debuted back in 1985 and is the story of an English Butler going to live with an American family. Again, not a ratings powerhouse, but it consistently won its time slot. Mr. Belvedere was also non-threatening and, most importantly for TGIF: family-friendly. Mr. Belvedere also has one of the all-time bizarre production hiatus for star Christopher Hewitt, which I won’t tell here because this is a family place.

Rounding out the first iteration of the Friday night lineup would be a TGIF og that is often forgotten: the show, “Just the Ten of Us.” Just The Ten of Us was a spinoff of the hit show Growing Pains. The show was about a gym teacher who taught at the same high school that Mike and Carol Sever from Growing Pains attended.

This is kind of confusing but The debut of Just the Ten of Us had a crossover with Growing Pains as Kirk Cameron, playing Mike, appeared in their pilot which actually aired on Growing Pains. Basically, this is what they call a Backdoor Pilot and they were simply using the popularity of Growing Pains and Kirk Cameron to launch a spinoff. The synopsis of Just the Ten of Us is simply a father trying to take care of 8 kids. Just the Ten of Us was not a massive hit, but still played its role in establishing the new Friday night family-based programming block. 

Establishing the Official TGIF Friday-Night Lineup

But it wasn’t TGIF as we know it quite yet. I mentioned “Terrific Tuesdays,” and ABC knew they needed some brand recognition to identify the programming block for a specific night. They also had “What a Wednesday,” and even had a title for the Friday night programming: “Friday Fun Night.” But going into September 1989, and with everything riding on Friday nights, new branding was needed. According to Entertainment Weekly, ABC had 10,000 possible names for what to call Friday nights. Some options included:

  • Friday Night Funnies
  • Friday Laugh Factory
  • Fresh New Funnies
  • And my personal favorite: Friday Night Laughtacular

ABC wanted to convey that end-of-the-week relief that’s reflected through saying Thank God, it’s Friday, but create something unique for them. Also, the restaurant TGI Fridays made it difficult to use the name. One of the other name options was Time For Fun, and that became the basis for the new intro theme song, and from that came the real meaning behind TGIF:

So, this may be the fact of the podcast. Like me, you probably always thought that ABC’s TGIF meant thank god, or thank goodness it’s Friday, but the lyrics of the song revealed that TGIF actually stood for Thank Goodness, It’s Funny. The actual TGIF logo was first seen in 1989 as was a change in the interstitials as some of the cast members of Full House took on hosting duties. The name TGIF was officially introduced, and they announced that stars from some new shows besides Perfect Strangers would host these segments. Some of the hosts would be from a new show connected to Perfect Strangers, which would go on to define TGIF. 

If you were a fan of Perfect Strangers, you may remember that Larry and Balki worked for a newspaper and in the building was an elevator operator named Harriet Winslow, played by Jo Marie Payton. She was married to a cop named Carl, who even appeared on Perfect Strangers. Carl was played by Reginald VelJohnson, who had also just famously played a cop in a little movie called Die Hard.

The spin-off of Perfect Strangers would feature Harriet, Carl, and their family and would be simply called: Family Matters. Family Matters debuted on September 22nd, 1989, and was inserted right into the TGIF lineup. Family Matters would soon become a staple of Friday night, and thanks to what was initially a one-off appearance by a dorky neighbor named Steve Urkel, became a ratings juggernaut attracting at least 20 million viewers each episode.

So the TGIF lineup would start with Full House, which led into Family Matters, Perfect Strangers followed that and the lineup was finished with Just the Ten of Us. But if you are a TGIF aficionado, you may remember the show Free Spirit. It was the story of a witch who moves in with a recently divorced father to take care of his three children. It’s basically Mary Poppins, but with more neon and pastel colors.

On September 22nd, 1989–that very first official night of TGIF–Free Spirit debuted in the fourth spot instead of Just the Ten of Us. But that was the only time it appeared on TGIF as it was moved to Sunday Nights just two days later.  

TGIF Becomes a Massive Hit

As the 80s became the 90s, Perfect Stranger, Full House, and Family Matters would remain the core three shows. Their order may change around, but for the first few years, would be the backbone of TGIF. When Family Matters–thanks to the insane popularity of Steve Urkel–became a massive hit, it would become the Friday night leadin where it remained for 6 straight years.

But besides those three, the fourth show on TGIF changed quite a bit. You may be waiting to hear about Step by Step, but it was still a few years away. After Just the Ten of Us failed to catch on, ABC gave Going Places a shot.

Going Places starred Alan Ruck and Heather Lockleyer as Hollywood writers, all renting a house together. It would bat clean up on TGIF, but only lasted for one season of 19 episodes. ABC then debuted the very creative show Dinosaurs. This was a live-action sitcom featuring giant dinosaur costumes. It was like The Flintstones meets Family Matters and it was a huge ratings hit when it debuted–not surprisingly, with kids. Dinosaurs would go in at the number two spot while Perfect Strangers was moved to fourth. For a short while, that fourth spot would be traded between Perfect Strangers and a new show called Baby Talk, which was kind of based on the Look Who’s Talking movies. It only lasted for two seasons. 

But now, built on the back of Family Matters, TGIF was a bona fide hit. 

The Format Worked

As a new decade began, new shows and a whole new intro for TGIF were introduced, and this is when the theme song you may be most familiar with began. The fact that there was not one but two theme songs was pretty groundbreaking as a block of time on TV never had anything like this before. TGIF was perfect; Teens and preteens aren’t exactly going out to the bars on a Friday night, but they’re not going to bed at 7:30 pm. They still needed something to do.

These shows were catered for their specific age, but the whole family could watch them as the content was accessible for even younger kids. The 8 to 10 pm time block was also perfect. Late enough to watch everything, but not too late. If you were of a certain age in the late 80s and early 90s, TGIF was an event. You ordered pizza and drank your weight in Sprite. In my house, we would have friends over and it felt like our equivalent of having a big night out on the town–but with less vomiting when the night ended. Some vomiting, but definitely less. My sister and I are a few years apart, but we could both have our friends over as we were all in the right age range to enjoy TGIF. 

You dare not miss TGIF unless you wanted to be completely out of the loop. In 1991, Step by Step debuted and easily fit into the established lineup. This was the story of two parents–each with three kids–that get married and blend their family together…and I’m realizing a lot of these shows just ripped off the Brady Bunch.

But Friday nights were our new Saturday mornings. ABC’s specific branding of a block of television worked. All the shows flowed together seamlessly, the theme songs had a continuity to them, and the in-between show segments helped tie it all together. Bob Iger and Jim Janicek’s plan worked; Families were all watching TV together at home on a Friday night. And a lot of other people were watching, too. The shows of TGIF were fun, light, and not too serious. Except for that Full House episode when DJ passes out at the gym…

And there was a formula that made this work. The creators of the core shows–Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett–said the shows needed to have two things: moments of real human connection, and trying to fulfill the fantasy where a parent would sit a kid down on the sofa and say what’s the matter, son.

The standout shows of TGIF all had these warm and fuzzy moments. Once they realized it was working, it became a rinse and repeat situation. Not every show was able to capture this perfectly, but the ones that filled those first three time slots often did and many have become some of the most beloved shows of all time. All the families featured on TGIF differed in some way and we, as viewers, could find one to identify with. But all the shows felt like one big family. 

This meant crossover was very easy. The core shows all connected easily and you may remember seeing Steve Urkel on Full House and even Step by Step. The properties were so similar and TGIF really was like the first Marvel Cinematic Universe–but with more sharing and hugging. 

A Massive Audience & a Uniue Phenomenon

But as cheesy as their format was, it was resulting in millions of viewers–actually tens of millions of viewers, and most importantly, when it comes to TV: millions of dollars. ABC was so adamant on this squeaky clean format being followed that they were more hands-on than a network usually is with programming. But they didn’t want to rock the boat.

They knew their audience was young, and they didn’t want to upset parents or any sponsors that were assured that their advertising was appearing during family-friendly content. And it was an advertiser’s dream, as even from the early days, the viewing audience was engaged, and stayed for the entire night.

In the interview with Entertainment Weekly, Mark Zharkin–who was senior VP of marketing at the time–said the ABC research department showed what percentage of the viewing audience who was watching the 8pm time slot carried over to 8;30, then, 9, then 9:30 to 10, and it was 90% or greater, which was pretty unheard of. TGIF was so powerful that research showed that test subjects would identify a Full House character as being from TGIF and not specifically Full House. However, this wasn’t exactly a bad problem to have. The main point is people were watching, kept watching, and came back each week. And there were a lot of people. 

Example: Here are the Nielson ratings for Friday, November 10th, 1989: 

  • Full House, Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, and Just the Ten of Us all won their respective time slots
  • Just the Ten of Us had 18.5 million viewers with a 20 rating share meaning 20% of all TVs turned on that night were tuning in.
  • Perfect Strangers had 20.5 million viewers with a 22 rating share
  • Family Matters had 21.9 million viewers with‌ a 23 rating share
  • And Full House had a mammoth 25 million viewers with a 26 rating share. That means that 1 in every 4 viewing households in the country that night was watching the Tanner family. On that night, Full House beat Baywatch by nearly 10 million viewers. It looks like CJ couldn’t beat DJ…I’m so sorry..that’s getting edited out…

Pretty remarkable for a Friday night

Thanks to TGIF, ABC dominated the ratings–and the money was rolling in. TGIF wasn’t popular with critics, didn’t win any awards, but there was a massive viewing audience, and allowed them to charge a premium to advertisers. This again infuriated critics who couldn’t understand why the ratings were so high. But As Oscar Hammerstein once said: “Nobody likes it except people.”

The End of TGIF

As the 90s continued, other big shows would enter the TGIF lineup. Boy Meets World, Hanging With Mr. Cooper, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch carried the TGIF tradition forward. But, of course, not every show was a hit. ABC threw a lot at the wall to see what would stick, and Friday nights were the perfect way to introduce news shows to see what worked. If we’re looking at the original run of TGIF, over the course of TGIF, ABC released many other shows. 

Besides the ones I’ve mentioned, TGIF also featured:

  • Clueless
  • On Our Own
  • I married Dora
  • Camp Wilder
  • Billy (the Head of the Class spin-off)
  • Where I Live
  • You Wish
  • Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza place featuring a handsome new Canadian named Ryan Reynolds
  • The Hughleys
  • Getting By
  • Muppets Tonight
  • Sister, Sister
  • Odd Man Out
  • Aliens in the Family (if you want a deep and obscure cut, go on YouTube after you listen to this and see if you remember Aliens in the Family which was actually produced by the Jim Henson Company)

By the late 90s, many of the classic TGIF shows were long gone. One big hit came in the early 90s when TGIF lost Full House to Tuesday nights. As big as TGIF was, you may remember how huge Tuesdays were for ABC. Because of the success of TGIF, Full House could now stand on its own alongside juggernaut hits like Roseanne. Then Family Matters and Step By Step moved to CBS.

In the later 90s, ABC was also making the move to more mature-based shows and experimenting with things like Making the Band, which was a music reality show done in collaboration between them and MTV. Their audience had grown up, and the shows were trying to, too. But much of that core audience was now too old to be staying home on Friday nights. There was too much vomiting to be done on the street outside of bars. Also, once again, the TV landscape was changing as programming was shifting to more adult audiences.

But by the spring of 2000, TGIF was done. Half the amount of viewers were tuning in, Families now had more TVs in the house, parents weren’t watching with kids as much, and new network options like Nickelodeon, The WB, and the Cartoon Network were more appealing to younger viewers. You can only hear Steve Urkel say “Did I do that” so many times. 

ABC did try to revive TGIF in 2003, but the magic just wasn’t there anymore–nor were the viewers. The original TGIF came out at the perfect time in the perfect format. 

But ABC put in motion the importance of branding specific nights and blocks of time on TV. NBC would capitalize on this with Must See TV as Thursday night became built around shows like Cheers, Friends, and Seinfeld would become one of the most powerful nights in the history of television. 

Final Thoughts on the TGIF Friday-Night Lineup

The story of the TGIF Friday night lineup is an interesting tale of Network TV, branding, and specific programming blocks. But it’s really about something so much deeper. 

Even though we were getting older in the later 1980s, our traditions stayed the same. The ritual of Saturday mornings would soon move to Friday nights. The content changed, but the experience didn’t. It was about regularity and consistency. Friday really was the perfect night for this programming block. There is a freeing feeling about Fridays. It’s when you can

 finally sit down and breathe after the week. No matter how bad the week may have been, Friday was there waiting for you, as was this beloved television institution that gave some constancy to our lives. Ultimately, TGIF was comfort food. You had your blankets, popcorn, drinks, and pizza. All the elements were there–including the content–to create an at-home, cozy experience. It seems weird to say, but there was a feeling of safety with TGIF and maybe that’s what the real apparel was. 

Families could watch together, and mine certainly did. There weren’t a lot of things on TV that parents and kids could watch together, and both enjoy. TGIF–with its very deliberate format and presentation–created a sense of community. And that’s a powerful thing. You may have felt like the shows catered to you, your sense of humor, and your own sensibilities. You probably felt like you knew all the characters on each show and that you were being invited into their living rooms each week.  

The story of TGIF is really the story about our beloved routines, rituals, and traditions. We started the decade with our Saturday morning cartoon tradition and ended the decade with a new Friday night ritual: TGIF. It’s about the power of our traditions and the people we surround ourselves with. You may not remember specific episodes of TGIF, but the memories exist in the tradition and the people we share it with. Ultimately, it’s the feeling that remains.