WKRP broke the rules…

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by Dw Dunphy

December 3, 2014

The impetus for a still-remarkable moment of television on ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ grew from a concert tragedy on Dec. 3, 1979, just before the Who took the stage at Riverfront Coliseum.

The Cincinnati venue had become known for its lax security and safety standards, evidenced by notorious occurrences at previous concerts by Yes and Led Zeppelin, among others. Nonetheless, this concert utilized the ticketing process of unreserved so-called festival seating, meant more for open-air and open-field venues. The tickets all cost the same, and fans’ actual seating positions, whether near the stage or otherwise, depended on how fast one could get to the front.

Fans who waited outside mistook the Who’s later-than-expected soundcheck for the actual concert and rushed the venue, finding only a few doors actually unlocked. Too many people jamming into too small a space meant certain trouble. Eleven people were trampled to death in the ensuing melee.

Neither the details of this horrible incident — nor the history of sitcoms itself — indicated that it would make good TV comedy fodder.

After all, network situation comedies aren’t typically known for tackling controversial current events. There are “very special episodes” that will hit upon a broad topic, but when it comes to focusing on a difficult moment ripped from the headlines, the format understandably often can’t handle the balance of comedy and the shock of the real.

But ‘WKRP’ broke from that pattern a few months after the Riverfront tragedy, when an episode titled ‘In Concert’ — recently reissued as part of a box set featuring the complete series – addressed the deadly stampede head on.

Set in a rock-oriented radio station full of misfit characters, ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ regularly featured the hit music of the day as a part of its scripts. That, coupled with the show’s (fictional) station being set in the same city as this particular real-life tragedy, gave the sitcom an opening to deal with something more thought provoking than the usual antics of disc jockeys Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) and newscaster Les Nessman (Richard Sanders).

Still, producer Hugh Wilson was initially against the idea, scripted by stalwart writer Steven Kampmann. The vice president of CBS’ Cincinnati affiliate WCPO, Robert Gordon, believed the effort to be in poor taste, capitalizing on a horrific event, and he threatened to preempt the airing with alternate programming. Only after a preview of the episode — which focused not on sensationalizing the Who concert but in exposing the fact that few U.S. cities had yet to address the issue of unreserved ticketing — did Gordon change his mind.

‘In Concert’ aired on Feb. 11, 1980, as the 19th episode in the the second season of ‘WKRP.’ By then, the Cincinnati municipal council had banned festival seating, heeding calls for such a ban that had been made as early as 1976.

Read More: How ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ Broke the Rules to Cover the Who’s Concert Tragedy | http://ultimateclassicrock.com/the-who-wkrp-in-concert/?trackback=fbshare_top&trackback=tsmclip

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