Was Star Trek Canceled While It Was Actually a Secret Ratings Success?

TV URBAN LEGEND: Star Trek was canceled despite it being one of NBC's most popular shows in the coveted 18-49 demographic.

The idea of TV shows being canceled "despite their strong ratings" has been a rallying cry for fans of canceled TV shows for generations. However, rarely do these complaints ever address the reality of TV demographics, which are much more important than traditional ratings, as I explained in this old Comic Book Legends Revealed years ago (where I explained that the Amazing Spider-Man TV series was not canceled in spite of its ratings, but rather precisely BECAUSE of its bad ratings), the demographics often matter a lot more than the plain ratings do...

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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 canceled a number of their seemingly hit shows that 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 that whole thing in this old TV Legends Revealed), the network 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.

However, that's what made the case of Star Trek so curious, as here, the argument was precisely the opposite of the typical lament over a canceled series. Here, the argument is that it actually was a hit within the demographics, but NBC was not yet paying attention to demographics when they deciding on whether to cancel or renew series.

From the awesome Star Trek wiki, Memory Alpha, here's a bit about NBC quickly deciding to work with Star Trek again in the making of the Star Trek: Animated Series just a couple of years after the series was initially canceled.

NBC's surprising complete turnaround (who had canceled the live-action precursor in 1969, purportedly for poor ratings performance) not only stemmed from the spectacular resurgence of the Original Series in syndication, but also from its own accounting department. Shortly before Fontana's report, NBC had replaced its old Nielsen rating system with a new and updated one. When they ran the original Original Series figures through their new system they found out much to their surprise that it had not only reached full penetration into their most coveted target audience, the male population between 18 and 45, but also that the series had been one of the most successful series, the network had ever aired. The sickening realization hit upon the dismayed network executives, that they had slaughtered the goose that laid the golden eggs, something that every Star Trek fan at the time could have told them, and which they actually had done in the first place.

This does not appear to be the actual case. First off, let me quickly note that it is true that Star Trek was a total hit in syndication. That much is clear. Like other shows such as The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, it appeared that when the show could be viewed at a more reasonable hour (like after school), people went for it in a big way. Those two family sitcoms suffered from being on prime time when it appeared that they were better suited for after school viewing and that was a similar problem for Star Trek, whose third season was famously on Friday night (the "death spot" for many TV shows). So there is no doubt that Star Trek proved a lot more popular than expected once it hit syndication. However, that was the "revelation" right there - that it was really popular in syndication. Nothing else.

Robert Jay's TV Obscurities is one of my favorite websites around and his look at Star Trek is one of the most in-depth examinations of the topic of whether the demographics really told a different story or not.

It is important to note that while the networks were still a ways away from making 18-49 practically their sole determiner when it came to ratings decisions (of course, since then, they have started to consider things other than ratings, like streaming possibilities, where a show with low ratings might be renewed because it has a deal with, say, Netflix, and various other topics besides strictly "are enough people watching this show?"), NBC clearly WAS looking at demographics at the time. In fact, when the network renewed Star Trek in 1967, it specifically cited how well Star Trek did in the "upscale" demographic as a reason to renew it (in other words, smart people with more money liked the show, so advertisers for higher end products could reach that audience through ads during Star Trek).

However, as TV Obscurities noted, demographics were not ignored at the time...

At the time, an NBC spokesman noted that the network was focusing on general rating trends when canceling programs.

A year later, however, Broadcasting reported that NBC’s upcoming 1968-1969 schedule “represents the fruition of a five-year process in building shows with youth appeal. The schedule “would emphasize an attraction to the young influentials,” or the “articulate, upper-income families from the more heavily populated areas of the country” . At the same time, officials noted that the network wasn’t forgetting other age groups: “Our programming is aimed for balance, diversity, with strong leaders, such as Bonanza and the Dean Martin Show, which appeal to all age groups” .

Star Trek was renewed for the 1968-1969 season — perhaps due in part to a letter writing campaign — but saw a drop in its per minute commercial price, from $39,000 to $36,000 . At the end of the 1968-1969 season, Star Trek‘s last, NBC trumpeted its ratings success in a variety of categories, including the 18-to-49 demographic . If Star Trek had been a demographic success, why would it have been cancelled?

In reality, Star Trek‘s young adult audience wasn’t any larger than the ABC and CBS programs it competed with. According to Television Magazine, the four episodes broadcast between October 27th and November 17th, 1966 averaged 8,630,000 viewers in the 18-to-49 age group, making up 43% of the show’s total audience . By comparison, during the same period ABC’s Bewitched (which aired opposite Star Trek from 9:30-10PM) averaged 10,210,000 young adult viewers or 37% of the total audience.

In summation, demographics were not new at the time and things didn't suddenly change after Star Trek was canceled. It was not some demographics wunderkind. It just slowly lost ratings and then moved to Friday nights for Season 3 where its ratings suffered even more. Then it moved to syndication where it became the hit that we know of to this day.

The legend is...


Thanks to TV Obscurities for the great info!

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of TV. Click here for more legends specifically about Star Trek.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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