First telecast October 4, 1972, the ABC Afterschool Special series was an ambitious project underwritten not only by ABC but also by several prominent children's advertisers -- the network's "answer" to such prestigious PBS efforts as Sesame Street and The Electric Company. In its earliest seasons, the series was aimed at elementary- and secondary-school students, though later its scope was expanded to accommodate teenage viewers of high-school age. Initially telecast on a monthly basis, the program was seen on Wednesdays in the 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. slot, depending upon the schedules of the individual network affiliates. As the series progressed, it could often be seen on a biweekly basis; and in 1981, three ABC Afterschool Specials were telecast in Sunday-evening prime time under the umbrella title "The ABC Theater for Young Americans." Adopting an anthology format, the series offered a wide variety of 60-minute playlets, some comical, most serious, many adaptations of popular children's novels. Several of the stories concerned such volatile topics as drunk driving, teen pregnancy, the plight of the homeless, the environment, divorce, child abuse, sexual molestation, the "punk rock" scene, illiteracy, anti-Semitism, schizophrenia, dyslexia, and AIDS. Though often provocative, the series never lapsed into bad taste; and though aimed at a young audience, the scripts neither patronized nor condescended to the viewer.
In its first few seasons, ABC Afterschool Special included a handful of animated programs, a musical celebration of William Shakespeare, and an intriguing documentary on a 1974 state political campaign, as seen through the eyes of two teenage campaign volunteers. Eventually, such "offbeat" entries were weeded out, and the series focused exclusively upon dramatizations. Among the best and most celebrated episodes were The Woman Who Willed a Miracle, the true story of autistic savant Leslie Lemke and his indefatigable stepmother; My Mom's Having a Baby, which included videotaped footage of a live birth; Rookie of the Year, the tale of a talented female Little League ballplayer; the amusing, self-explanatory It Must Be Love (Cause I Feel So Dumb); the equally self-explanatory but far more serious The Late Great Me! Story of a Teenage Alcoholic (one of several episodes alerting viewers to the existence of an organization called AlaTeen); and The Wave, a chilling cautionary fable about the seductive powers of blind groupthink and neofascism. In its later seasons, the program featured an off and on miniseries called "Summer Stories," in which the challenges facing youngsters of the 1990s were dramatized in a period setting.
The cast lists of the various ABC Afterschool Specials read like a veritable who's who of former child and teenage actors who graduated to adult stardom. Jodie Foster and Kristy McNichol appeared in several of the earliest entries, while later episodes featured such up-and-comers as Rob Lowe, Ben Affleck, River Phoenix, Kyra Sedgwick, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rosanna Arquette, Jennifer Grey, Seth Green, Trini Alvarado, Michelle Pfeiffer, Val Kilmer, Jennifer Grey, Sean Astin, Mare Winningham, and Kellie Martin.
The winner of countless industry honors (including several Emmy and Peabody Awards), ABC Afterschool Special continued turning out new episodes at the rate of six to seven per year until ABC was taken over by Disney in 1996. ~ Rovi