LOS ANGELES, April 8 (UPI) -- The latest vintage TV series to come out on DVD is the prime-time soap 'Dynasty,' and it's worth noting how much American life has changed since the show first came on in 1981 -- and yet how many of the issues it dealt with are still on the national agenda.
We live in a time when just about anything goes on cable, and broadcast TV has pushed the envelope on decency to try to remain competitive. But "Dynasty," which ABC ordered as an answer to the CBS hit "Dallas," was decidedly pre-cable -- coming on the air six months before MTV.
Most viewers might not have known what was coming, but entertainment-industry professionals -- who followed cable as it progressed from its embryonic stages to the marketplace -- were well aware that everything was about to change.
Esther Shapiro, who created "Dynasty" with her husband Richard, had been a programming executive at ABC. In an interview with United Press International, she said she and her husband had trouble with the network at times with some of "Dynasty's" content -- including, for example, that one of the principal characters was gay.
"When you look at cable and the lengths they go to now," she said, "you can do almost anything."
The show's first season -- now headed for the DVD market -- seems almost prescient. For instance, a major theme of the continuing story was political intrigue surrounding the Middle East oil interests of the central character, Blake Carrington, played by John Forsythe.
This was roughly 10 years before the first Gulf War and more than 20 years before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The show also upped the ante for prime-time glamour, since most of the principal characters were somewhere north of well-off on the economic class scale.
"It anticipated the age of greed and glitz," said Shapiro.
Broadcasters today have taken daring content so far that a backlash has formed -- and members of Congress are seriously discussing stricter regulations on broadcast indecency, as well as the possibility of applying content regulations to cable and satellite programming.
"There's kind of a -- I don't know if it's a spiritual awakening, it may be a fundamentalist leaning," said Shapiro. "Muslim and Christianity are the two big icons, but beneath that I think there is a hungering for what we had before -- something that's closer to home, closer to basic values."
At least one constant, perhaps, remains: a preference on the part of viewers to see rich people go through trouble and misery. "Dynasty" executive producer Aaron Spelling observed that that was a significant factor in the success of shows such as "Dynasty" and "Dallas."
"They also like to watch them 'get it,'" said Shapiro. "They don't want to see them get cancer. They just like to see them get in trouble."
The characters on "Dynasty" -- in keeping with soap conventions -- got in their fair share of scrapes. The show stood out for the constant catfights between Krystle (Linda Evans) and Alexis (Joan Collins). Shapiro said there was a nightclub in Santa Monica, Calif., that used to draw a crowd to watch the show on Wednesday nights -- and would routinely warm up the crowd with clips of catfights from previous shows.
She also said she heard from countless women who found the show empowering.
"Once, a women's group in Washington, D.C., called me," she said. "They said our show was an expression of how women could express anger."
Shapiro said producers had to fight to get Evans and Collins in the cast.
"We had a tough time casting Linda because she was 35," said Shapiro. "They (network executives) called Joan Collins 'geriatric.' At one time they wanted Sophia Loren (to play Alexis) -- not that she was that much younger, but she was a big movie star."
Large numbers of viewers found Evans, Collins and the other women glamorous enough -- and became so interested in their fashions, and even their scents, that the show spun off a prosperous merchandising sideline by its fourth season. Shapiro described one event at Bloomingdale's in New York in which the store dedicated an afternoon to merchandising "Dynasty" products.
"We did $600,000-$700,000 worth of business in two hours," she said.
Like "Dallas" and, later, "Baywatch," "Dynasty" was also a fan favorite in overseas markets. Shapiro said the show's appeal was such that even Silvio Berlusconi -- who is now the prime minister and the richest man in Italy -- used to have the show on all 11 of the TV sets in his home so he wouldn't miss a thing as he moved from room to room.
Shapiro said "Dynasty's" appeal was not exclusively due to the spectacle of rich people behaving badly. A major story element had to do with middle-class people who worked for and around the fabulously wealthy Carrington family, which Shapiro said acted as a bridge to lead the audience to the Carringtons.
"Once the audience got a glimpse of that world they didn't want to hear about the middle class," she said. "They wanted to see the glitz, the glamour, the catfights. They wanted to see the women speaking their minds."
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