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Comic Book Legends Revealed #485

by  in Comic News Comment
Comic Book Legends Revealed #485

Welcome to the four hundred and eighty-fifth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous four hundred and eighty-four. In honor of the release of Amazing Spider-Man 2 on DVD this week, it’s an all-Spider-Man edition of CBLR! Was the 1970s live action Spider-Man series canceled despite good ratings? Was Firestar originally going to be Mary Jane? And did Paul Jenkins re-write a Howard Mackie issue of Amazing Spider-Man that crossed over with Jenkins’ Peter Parker: Spider-Man?

This week also is unique for another reason. See if you notice why!

Let’s begin!

NOTE: The column is on three pages, a page for each legend. There’s a little “next” button on the top of the page and the bottom of the page to take you to the next page (and you can navigate between each page by just clicking on the little 1, 2 and 3 on the top and the bottom, as well).

COMIC LEGEND: The late 1970s Spider-Man live action TV series was canceled in spite of its good ratings.

STATUS: I’m Going with False

Reader Bob H. wrote in about this question, based on a piece of trivia that he came across about the short-lived live action Spider-Man television series from the late 1970s…

that starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man…

The show’s IMDB page has probably the best distillation of the trivia in question

Contrary to popular belief, “Spider-Man” was not canceled because of low ratings. In fact, the series performed well in the ratings, but TV politics were believed to have played a role in the cancellation; CBS executives apparently wanted to shed the network’s image as “The Superhero Network,” so they canceled the show, in addition to “Wonder Woman.” (However, “The Incredible Hulk” remained at the network until 1982.)

Nowadays, television viewers are mostly familiar with the fact that television ratings, as a whole, are not the deciding factor in whether a television series is going to be renewed. There are other factors included, the most important being demographics. Due to the fact that older audiences tend to watch more television, advertisers are not all that worried about reaching them. In other words, you can pick a network television show seemingly at random and you’ll likely reach an older audience. Therefore, the important ratings are the “18-49” ratings, how a show does with that specific demographic. People 18-49 watch less television so they are harder to advertise to and therefore shows that don’t do well with that demographic are unlikely to be renewed. Another significant factor is cost. This one’s obvious – if a show costs X amount to make and it brings in less than X amount of revenue, it’s going to be canceled even if that X amount of revenue is greater than another, cheaper show.

Demographics really came into focus in the early 1970s when CBS discovered that a number of their seemingly hit shows were doing poorly in the 18-49 demographics, so coupled with a reduced prime time schedule due to some government regulations (you can read about the whole thing in this old TV Legends Revealed), they canceled a whole pile of older-skewing shows like Hee Haw, Mayberry RFD and The Jim Nabors Show.

So right off the bat, it is very often misleading to see people refer to a show “being canceled despite strong ratings” without including the demographic information.

Okay, but how does this apply to the Amazing Spider-Man TV series?

It is true that in the 1977-78 season, both Amazing Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk debuted strong in the ratings for CBS (they both debuted with TV movies that led to a short first season for each show). In fact, ratings-wise, Amazing Spider-Man did slightly better than the Hulk.

However, the Hulk did better in the aforementioned demographics market, as Spider-Man’s audience skewed a bit younger. In addition, Spider-Man was a good deal more expensive to produce than the Incredible Hulk. Finally, Hulk was produced by a famous TV producer of the time, Kenneth Johnson (I’ve featured a few Comic Book Legends Revealed about Mr. Johnson in the past, like his views on the name “Bruce” and whether he wanted the Hulk to be red, because red was the color of anger) and was made by a major studio, Universal, while Spider-Man was produced by an independent production company Charles Fries Productions.

All of those were factors in the Incredible Hulk getting a regular spot on the 1978-79 television schedule (and a nice time slot, as well, 9pm on Friday nights) while Spider-Man was instead given a smaller episode order for season 2 and a non-regular time slot.

So if you wanted to say that Spider-Man got short shrift in season 2 despite solid ratings, then you’d have a point. It was hurt by its demographic numbers and its higher cost.

However, once season 2 began, Spider-Man’s ratings were flat out NOT good.

After averaging 21 million households (HH) in its first season, in the second season here were Spider-Man’s ratings number (Courtesy of the awesome poster DuMont):

1. Tue.Sep.05/1978: 12.8HH (aired against NBC’s LITTLE MO and fresh ‘Laverne & Shirley’ on ABC)
2. Tue.Sep.12/1978: 12.7HH (aired against fresh one-hour ‘Happy Days’)
3. Sat.Nov.25/1978: 15.3HH (aired against fresh ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ and ‘CHiPs’ episodes)
4. Sat.Dec.30/1978: 19.1HH
5. Wed.Feb.07/1979: 16.2HH
6. Wed.Feb.21/1979: 12.6HH
7. Fri.Jul.06/1979: 13.9HH (final 2-hour episode aired over July 4th weekend)

Those were NOT good numbers and that is not even including the demographics, which I actually don’t know for season 2, but I imagine were not different than season 1 (which I know were poor).

The Incredible Hulk, meanwhile, averaged about 18.1 households its second season, with better demo numbers (demographics also hurt Wonder Woman that season).

So add in the high cost of production and it sure seems that Spider-Man was canceled specifically BECAUSE of its poor ratings, not despite them (it was likely dead in the water as soon as its first two fall episodes flopped). Nicholas Hammond has even spoken about the ratings, noting in Mark Phillips and Frank Garcia’s Science Fiction Television Series: Episode Guides, Histories, and Casts and Credits for 62 Prime-Time Shows, 1959 through 1989:

[T]hey thought, ‘Well, this is going to appeal to the same age group that watched Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, we’ll put Spider-Man against that.’ I begged them not to! I said, ‘There’s no way we can take on the Fonz and Happy Days!’ At that point it was an absolute American institution! And sure enough, we didn’t! We did very badly against them. And it was kind of the beginning of the end of the show, which was a pity, but for the time we were on, we did enjoy a great deal of popularity and success in the first year.

So did CBS want to move away from superhero shows? Perhaps, but if they did, it was because the ratings weren’t good enough to keep them. They kept the Hulk around because its ratings WERE good enough to stick around. So I don’t think it was anything other than the ratings not being good enough.

Thanks to Bob for the suggestion! And thanks to DuMont for the ratings info!
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Check out my latest TV Legends Revealed at Spinoff Online: Was Laverne Cox really the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy?
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On the next page, was Mary Jane originally going to be Firestar?

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