Four decades ago, the television landscape was drastically different. Apart from a little competition from PBS and a few independent stations, the three major networks had a stranglehold on the national viewing audience. So it was a pretty big deal when CBS signed the world-famous Jackson family, including Michael, La Toya and even 10-year-old Janet, to headline their own prime-time showcase. Only Jermaine, the lone Jackson still signed to Motown, had to opt out for contractual reasons.
Titled simply The Jacksons, the series debuted on June 16, 1976, ran for four weeks and then returned for three more months in 1977. Largely forgotten today, The Jacksons is a real treasure trove of vintage footage of Michael and his brothers in action. It’s also very much a product of its time. For example, the premiere included a segment in which the Jacksons croon a medley of standards with Sonny Bono, who’s all decked out in a sequined tuxedo for the occasion.
Though the Jacksons weren’t with Motown anymore, their CBS show reflects the mentality of their ex-mentor, Berry Gordy. In the 1960s, Gordy wanted Motown’s acts to reach the widest possible audience, regardless of race or class. If that meant abandoning R&B for a while in order to perform more staid, traditional tunes, so be it. So other fabulous guests during that initial 1976 run included Ed McMahon, Joey Bishop, and Mackenzie Phillips, with whom the Jacksons crooned the novelty hit “Junk Food Junkie.” The Jacksons also gamely participated in comedy skits, like this parody of a famous Life cereal commercial.
Corny and outdated as it often is, The Jacksons has its share of amazing moments that could only have happened on a network variety series from a bygone era. In the above sequence, for instance, Michael dons a “Smooth Criminal”-esque white suit and fedora in order to sing and dance his way through “Get Happy” for the CBS viewing audience. This develops into a full-blown, Broadway-style production number for “I Got Rhythm.” That week’s special guest, Carroll O’Connor, is AWOL.