We all know why the original Star Trek TV series was cancelled don’t we? Despite the volume of fan support, this simply didn’t translate into viewing figures and the series couldn’t compete. Well, it seems that according to the latest evidence produced in Marc Cushman and Susan Osborn’s book These Are the Voyages: The Original Series: Season One, that this isn’t the entire truth.
Cushman and Osborn’s book is the first in a trilogy about the Original Series and so we won’t know exactly why the series was cancelled until the third season book comes out. But what makes this information so reliable? Well, they have licenced the Nielsen Ratings for each season – the first time they have ever been published. In the first season, the show was the first or second place in its timeslot for every single episode. It was even beating series such as Bewitched during the first season.
We already know some alternative ratings while we wait for the Nielsens. The very first episode of Star Trek received 19.8 percent and 40.6 percent on the Trendex 26-city rating. This means that it was watched by 19.8 percent of all potential television viewers, and an incredible 40.6 percent of all of those watching television at the time. Sure back then there wasn’t the vast volume of channels to whittle away the ratings as there is today, but NBC agreed for a full season within three months and it was renewed for a second season during the following March. According to the Trendex ratings, Star Trek was pushed further down the ratings after ABC moved Bewitched and Love on a Rooftop to compete with it and the show dropped to third in the time slot. However, it seems that on the wider Nielsen ratings, this affect wasn’t seen.
Of course, as with all situations, the networks can’t stop messing with the time slots. So for the second season, it was moved to Friday nights. It was the original “Friday night death slot”. Star Trek beat ABC in the ratings, but was still ranked second in the timeslots. The overall Trendex share had dropped to only 22.5 percent. The thing is, that the show wasn’t even meant to be airing on in the death slot – it had been promised a Tuesday night time slot in order to boost viewers from the first season even further. But after they couldn’t jiggle the time slots, all that was left was the Friday night slot.
Star Trek was hit hard by the Friday night slot – it meant younger viewers couldn’t watch it and besides, this was the sixties – their key demographic simply wasn’t watching television on a Friday night. In fact, the biggest success of that timeslot was the movie of the week on another network. Yep, Star Trek kept losing out to a random movie each week. NBC to their credit looked to replace The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with Star Trek on Monday nights but that just didn’t happen either and it stayed on Friday evenings.
Rumours were spread that cancellation was imminent, although NBC denied this. A fan campaign led by Bjo Trimble (and possibly engineered by Gene Roddenberry) resulted in around 160,000 letters of support being sent to the network. This was of course in a time without the internet or any real way to organise the support – just fanzines. NBC finally realised that Friday night for Star Trek was a terrible idea, and tried to move it to a Monday night instead for the third season. It was going to replace Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, but the presenters kicked up such a fuss and threatened to go to another network that this plans were scrapped. Again Star Trek didn’t have anywhere else to go and it was dumped on an even worse time slot on Friday nights – airing at 10pm.
With that bad a timeslot and with only 181 NBC affiliates out of 210 showing the series, there was simply no way that Star Trek could survive given the budget (even if the third season had been reduced). The actors weren’t happy with the product that the third season was producing and Gene Roddenberry had already walked out. In the end, the ratings weren’t there, it was too expensive and it simply had no one fighting the show’s corner on a daily basis with the network.
The truth of the matter is that NBC took a show that was winning its timeslot and messed with it until it couldn’t possibly survive. I can point to at least three shows this season that the American networks are doing the same thing to, as it is far easier to avoid a negative reaction to a show if no one is watching it or liking it anymore. With Star Trek, NBC simply didn’t bargain that the fan base was as stubborn as hell (good on you all!) and wouldn’t stop wanting the product.
Of course we can all say that NBC made a mistake in cancelling Star Trek. But perhaps the greater mistake is by CBS – after all, they passed on Star Trek and made Lost in Space instead.
This article was first posted on November 19, 2013