Tuesday, August 7, 2018

“The Facts of Life”: Ready to Launch

With Garrett’s Girls picked up as a series, Charlotte Rae was definitely excited about getting a show of her own. However, she didn’t want to give up her role on a gigantic hit like Diff’rent Strokes if NBC wasn’t really serious about the spinoff. A mini set of four episodes were ordered and pre-production of the show began in earnest. Charlotte took an active role in developing the show, accompanying the producers on field trips to real life boarding schools for research. NBC had hoped that such research would add authenticity to the show, whose title had become The Facts of Life.

It was on one of these trips that Ms. Rae had encountered a young girl who she became impressed with. The young girl had no desire to become an actress and was solely introduced to the television show executives as someone who could speak with them about her experiences at the boarding school. Charlotte Rae insisted that a character be created specifically for the young girl. Thus Mindy Cohn became an actress and “Natalie Green” was born. 

While Norman Lear wasn’t directly involved with Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life, his production company was and he had become concerned with NBC’s increasing desperation for spinoffs and gimmicks. While The Facts of Life was being developed, the network decided to try to give one of its middling sitcoms- Hello Larry- a boost by doing a crossover episode. With the first four episodes of The Facts of Life airing before Mrs. Garrett had actually left Diff’rent Strokes, audiences couldn’t be blamed for being confused by it all. 

The first four episodes aired before the real season had begun. Featuring a cast of seven young ladies, including a young Molly Ringwald, the show didn’t set any ratings records. Despite this, NBC committed to nine more episodes which would air during the second half of the season after Mrs. Garrett was officially written out of Diff’rent Strokes.

The remaining episodes aired with low ratings as well. The Facts of Life was NBC’s lowest rated show and only two shows ranked lower. Norman Lear was relieved. For some reason he was still embarrassed by the show and he assumed that NBC would cancel the show. NBC, however, felt that the show could be salvaged if it was retooled. In what must have been a first, Norman Lear begged NBC to cancel the show. Of course, they refused. While the show became one of the most profitable programs in Norman Lear’s catalog, generating millions of dollars in profits,  he continues to distance himself from it.