By Anthony Strand
Right On Schedule is a series looking at a network’s primetime schedule for one night during one TV season. It aims to examine the shows in relation to one another, TV as a whole, and sometimes even the culture as a whole.
NBC Fridays (1968–1969)
7:30 The High Chaparral
8:30 The Name of the Game
10:00 Star Trek
If you read last month’s column, you may recall that I was originally planning to cover NBC’s Monday lineup from 1964–1965 in this space. The most interesting aspect of that lineup was 90 Bristol Court, a block of three sitcoms set in the same apartment building. But while researching that lineup, I found this terrific TV Obscurities article that says everything I would have covered and much, much more. So please, go read that piece if you’re interested!
So I’ve decided instead to cover another NBC lineup from the 1960s featuring a somewhat similar gimmick. Instead of a Monday night, though, this one is a Friday lineup. Today, Friday night is often referred to with terms such “death slot.” And this group of shows includes the final season of Star Trek, which the network somewhat begrudgingly kept on the air after a massive letter-writing campaign. So it certainly seems possible that the death slot was carrying out its show-killing business even back in in 1968. But is that true? Did NBC put these shows on Friday to kill them? Read on and see, as we examine them one at a time.
The evening started off with The High Chaparral. Another Western from Bonanza creator David Dortort, the show similarly focused on a large family that owned a ranch. Instead of Bonanza‘s straightforward set-up of a widower with three adult sons, the Cannon family was sprawling and byzantine. Widower Big John Cannon (whose wife died in the pilot) was joined by his brother, his nephew, his new wife, her brother, and their dad (a neighboring rancher).
The show had a respectable four-season run, but it never reached the highs of Bonanza. In its tenth season, the older show was still a top five hit (#3!) in 1968–69, but High Chaparral‘s second season didn’t even make the top thirty. Of course, neither had its first, which might explain the new, less impressive time slot. During the first season, it aired on Sundays at 10 p.m., immediately after Bonanza itself. The new time slot may have been a vote of confidence that the series could kick off a night, or it might have been a banishment.
In any case, the series’ relative lack of ratings success was largely due to audience fatigue with Westerns in general. The genre had dominated the ratings in the early 1960s, but by the decade’s end the trend had largely died. Veteran hits like Bonanza and Gunsmoke continued to do well, but newer shows had difficulty establishing themselves. High Chaparral was a victim of the times, not of the Friday night death slot. It probably wouldn’t have done much better no matter where it was scheduled.
Providing further evidence against the existence of the death slot is The Name of the Game, which was undoubtedly NBC’s most prestigious new show in fall 1968. TV Guide reported that the show had a budget of $400,000 per episode, the highest in TV history up to that time. Each episode was 90 minutes long, and the show had three rotating stars. Two were familiar TV faces: Robert Stack (of The Untouchables) as Dan Farrell, an Eliot Ness-esque former FBI investigator; and Gene Barry as editor Glenn Howard, another suave millionaire in the mold of his character from Burke’s Law. The third star was moderately well-known movie actor Anthony Franciosa as persistent reporter Jeff Dillon.
All three characters worked at the same publishing house, Howard Publishers, and would occasionally make brief appearances in each others’ stories. But one man took the lead each week, investigating a story or dealing with a current issue. That last aspect was the focus of the series’ promotion, where it was presented as a “Ripped from the Headlines” social drama. This makes sense, because it dealt with topics like racial conflict, the sexual revolution, and pollution in a way that few series attempted at the time (certainly since the end of The Defenders a few years earlier.)
After the splashy debut, however, the show had little staying power. The stories became less daring and more predictable as the series went on. It spent three seasons on Friday nights and ended quietly in 1971. The Friday night time slot did not cause the show’s downfall. Once the stories became less “relevant,” The Name of the Game just didn’t give people much of a reason to tune in. The fall after its cancellation. NBC introduced something of a successor in The NBC Mystery Movie (which spawned hits like Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan & Wife). That show’s leads were less earnest and more likable than the denizens of Howard Publishers, and audiences found them much more pleasant to spend time with regardless of the story being told.
Which brings us back to where we began—Star Trek. As I mentioned, the series was nearly cancelled after its second season, but was given a reprieve after fans indicated that they might enjoy seeing more stories about the crew of the Starship Enterprise. It’s sometimes suggested that the show was moved to Friday nights in 1968 (I was guilty of that at the beginning of this very article), but the truth is that it had aired in this same slot the previous year. NBC kept Star Trek right where fans could find it. Friday is just a good night to appeal to sci-fi fans, as future shows from The X-Files to the 2000s reboot of Battlestar Galactica attest.
And in ’68, those fans were largely disappointed with the show NBC gave them. Star Trek‘s third season isn’t without gems (I don’t care what anyone says—”Requiem for Methuselah” is one of the all-time greats), but it was overall a much sillier show than it had been in its first two years. Installments like “Spock’s Brain,” “The Way to Eden,” and “Turnabout Intruder” played like parodies of the series’ formula. The former was even the season premiere, to the embarrassment of many fans who convinced their friends to tune in.
So those same people who had passionately written letters abandoned Star Trek, disgusted to see that it was now a farce. Or they abandoned it temporarily, at least. The existence of that third season allowed Trek to flourish in syndication and eventually be reborn as cartoon, a film series, a fleet of new TV shows, and finally another film series with younger and prettier actors. For Star Trek, the “Friday night death slot” turned out to be quite the opposite. That last gasp led to a new beginning which has lasted decades.
So I have to conclude that no, NBC didn’t put these shows on Fridays to kill them. They wanted these shows to succeed, just like networks always want success from the shows they choose to keep on the air.
I mean, that’s gotta be true, right?
Previously on Right On Schedule: CBS Saturdays (1955-1956)