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Idol Chatter

With the amount of TV that most of us watch, it’s inevitable–much as we try to resist or deny it–that the small screen shapes our worldview and our national conversation. To that end, a significant cultural leader passed away this weekend. Aaron Spelling was 83.

The producer of such megahit television shows as “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “Dynasty,” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” gained a reputation from critics as being a formulaic producer of “jiggle TV.” According to the critics, he was after ratings more than writing, prioritizing superstars over substance. He was known as a crowd-pleaser, but I always saw him as an unbelievable crowd-shaper, and I believe that he affected your life and mine more than we knew.

Our parents may have seen him act in “I Love Lucy” or “Dragnet.” Just about everyone from the Baby Boomer generation not only watched his shows but probably acquired their television-watching habit itself from his creations, including “Starsky and Hutch,” “S.W.A.T.,” “Hart to Hart,” “Vegas,” “The Rookies,” “The Mod Squad,” and “T.J. Hooker.” I think the “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” put the “made-for-television” movie genre back on the map, and probably kept John Travolta’s career barely on track at the time. “Charlie’s Angels” once gained a 50-plus ratings share–for a rerun.

For those slightly younger, “Dynasty” may have been the first exposure to Spelling’s work; it influenced not only TV ratings but countless magazine and tabloid covers for years. “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place” introduced an entire younger generation to Spelling’s work, as did “7th Heaven,” which completed the circle (at least in my family), as my kids got hooked on it and still are.

If Spelling’s shows didn’t float our boat, certainly the stars he discovered have. A list including the likes of Julia Roberts, Joan Collins, Heather Locklear, John Forsythe, Linda Evans, Farrah Fawcett, Shannen Doherty, Luke Perry, Jennie Garth, Jason Priestly, Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, William Shatner, and his daughter, Tori, were all discovered or re-discovered through one or more of Spelling’s productions. Imagine how our shows–and our culture–would be different had these actors not had a career (or second career) launched through Mr. Spelling.

In all, he produced and/or had an executive role in almost 200 television series and movies, which at one point earned him the “Guinness Book of World Records” citation for the most credits as a television producer. Though most of the records in the “Guinness Book” can be considered irrelevant, I think Aaron Spelling’s is one that matters more than we realize. He shaped what we saw and who we saw–and to some degree the values we’ve chosen and role models we’ve adopted–more than even he probably realized.

Those who knew him say he just enjoyed selling and producing a good show. I think we know he did both–and quite a bit more.

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