Nothing lasts forever. This is particularly true of television shows, all of which at some time or another will come to an end. In the case of a few shows their producers (or sometimes their star) will decide that it has run its course and elect to end its production. This was the way in which such shows as Perry Mason, M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Seinfeld ended. Unfortunately, the vast majority of shows end when they are cancelled by the network on which they aired. And more often than not cancellation is the result of low ratings. Indeed, not a few classic shows were cancelled by networks because their ratings were poor.
While most cancellations of television shows have been due to low ratings, it is by no means the only reason television shows are cancelled. In fact, there have been a few cases in which shows were receiving perfectly respectable ratings when they were cancelled. What is more, there have been a few cases in which shows were cancelled that were receiving simply incredible ratings. The simple fact is that even great ratings are sometimes not enough to save a show.
Following is a list of some of the highest rated shows ever cancelled by the American broadcast networks. While I believe this list includes nearly all of the highest rated programmes cancelled over the years, I am not going to say that it is necessarily definitive. The Nielsen Company has provided ratings for the American broadcast networks since 1950. With that many years to cover, it is possible that a few programmes may have been missed. Here I must thank my brother +Berry Canote, who went through television schedules year by year and complied much of the list. His help was invaluable.
Unfortunately the phenomenal ratings of Bridget Loves Bernie would not be enough to save it. Centred on the marriage between a Catholic woman and a Jewish man, the show proved very controversial upon its debut. The show came under fire from conservative and orthodox Jewish organisations, who felt it ridiculed the teachings of Judaism, showed intermarriage between Jews and Christians as something favourable, and presented negative Jewish stereotypes. Among the Jewish groups who objected to Bridget Loves Bernie were the Synagogue Council of America, the Commission on Interfaith Activities of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Rabbinical Assembly of America, and the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America. In response to the controversy in a New York Times article from February 1973 then President of CBS Robert Wood pointed out that they had both Jewish and Catholic advisors on the show to insure the show was not offensive and that while the network realised the people who objected to the show were "sincere, concerned people", CBS felt "..if we respond to pressure to cancel the show, we do a disservice to the millions who obviously like it."
In the end CBS cancelled Bridget Loves Bernie in April 1973. Its cancellation came as a surprise to many observers, who assumed it would be renewed given its extremely high ratings. In a Copley News Service article at the time CBS President Robert Wood claimed the cancellation of Bridget Loves Bernie was "absolutely removed" from various Jewish groups' objections to it. Given the fact that the show ranked #5 for the season in the Nielsen ratings, one might have good reason to doubt Robert Wood's statement on the show's cancellation. While CBS may have considered other factors in the show's cancellation, it seems likely that the controversy over Bridget Loves Bernie played a large role in its demise.
Red Skelton proved to be as successful on television as he had on radio. In its first season on NBC The Red Skelton Show was the #4 show for the year in the Nielsen ratings. After two seasons on NBC The Red Skelton Show moved to CBS where it really took off. The show spent 14 of its seasons on CBS in the top 20 shows according to the Nielsen ratings, eight of those seasons in the top ten. It was in 1962 that The Red Skelton Show expanded to an hour and was renamed The Red Skelton Hour. If anything else, it was even more successful in an hour long format. After nineteen years on the air Red Skelton was still very successful on television. The Red Skelton Hour ranked #7 for the 1969-1970 season.
It is for that reason people were surprised when in the spring of 1970 CBS cancelled The Red Skelton Hour. Although few realised it at the time, the network's cancellation of The Red Skelton Hour was a precursor of the Rural Purge they would undertake the following season. Starting in 1967 CBS grew increasingly concerned that their audience was too old and too rural. The network wanted to attract the young, urban demographic that Madison Avenue found most desirable. In fact, it was during the 1966-1967 season that CBS cancelled its long running game shows I've Got a Secret and What's My Line because their audiences skewed too old. Sadly, while The Red Skelton Hour received phenomenal ratings, its audience was largely older and living in rural areas.
Of course, it seems likely that the largely rural, older audience of The Red Skelton Hour was not the only reason the show was cancelled. Much of it may have simply come down to Red Skelton's salary. Mr. Skelton's contract stipulated that he was to receive a raise in salary every year. By 1970, then, Red Skelton was a very expensive star, and one who was not attracting the demographic that the network wanted. The Red Skelton Hour then became what was at the time the highest rated show ever cancelled.
While CBS had cancelled The Red Skelton Hour, it did not remain off the air for long. NBC picked the show up for the 1970-1971 season, but not without changes. NBC cut the show from an hour to a half hour in length. The network also cut its budget, so that the show did not have the elaborate sets that it had on CBS. The Red Skelton Show did not remain long on NBC its second time around. NBC cancelled it at the end of the 1970-1971 season, although with much lower ratings than it ever had on CBS.
Gang Busters proved to be enormously popular, inspiring a 1942 film serial entitled Gang Busters as well as a series of comic books published by National Periodical Publications starting in 1948. Strangely enough given its success, Gang Busters came to television because of another, younger radio show. Dragnet had debuted on NBC Radio in 1949 and proved very popular. When Dragnet first came to television, however, its creator and producer Jack Webb had difficulty producing a half hour episode each week. NBC needed a show to air during the weeks that they did not have episodes of Dragnet. As a result Gang Busters came to television as a temporary show that would alternate weeks with Dragnet until Jack Webb could begin producing weekly episodes.
The television version of Gang Busters debuted on NBC on 20 March 1952. Its format was almost the same as the radio show. It was an anthology show that adapted real life FBI cases. There was only one major difference between the radio version of Gang Busters and its counterpart on television. On radio Gang Busters had a regular host (among them Lewis Valentine, former New York City police commissioner, and Col.Norman Schwarzkopf Sr., former superintendent of the New Jersey State Police). In contrast, episodes of the television version of Gang Buster were hosted by an actor from that particular episode in the role of the law enforcement official he had played.
Regardless, Gang Busters proved very successful on television. In fact, for the 1951-1952 season it ranked #14 out of the all the shows on the air. Its ratings actually improved for the 1952-1953 season, rising to #8 in the Nielsen ratings for the season. As to the show with which it rotated weeks, Dragnet ranked #4. Unfortunately for the producers of Gang Busters, by 1952 Jack Webb was able to provide NBC with a new episode of Dragnet every week. NBC then cancelled Gang Busters despite the fact that it was the #8 show for the season. Of course, today the sort of ratings that Gang Busters had received would have guaranteed it a spot on the television schedule, even if it had initially been meant as a pinch hitter for Dragnet.
Leap of Faith had an ideal time slot, airing in between Friends (then the #1 show) and Will & Grace (then the #9 show). Not surprisingly, then, Leap of Faith did very well in the ratings. In fact, it ranked #12 for the 2001-2002 season. Despite this, Leap of Faith was cancelled after only six episodes. It is difficult to say why Leap of Faith was cancelled. Scouring newspaper articles from the time uncovered none of the reasons that NBC might have had for cancelling a show that was performing very well in the ratings. If I were to offer a guess, it might be that NBC thought Leap of Faith was not holding on to enough of the audience of Friends. This was the reason given for the cancellation of another show that aired between Friends and Will & Grace that same season (more on that in Part Two). Of course, given that Leap of Faith ranked #12 for the season, one has to wonder just how much of the audience of Friends NBC expected any show to retain.
Given its premise was very similar to that of Bridget Loves Bernie, one might conclude that Chicken Soup was also cancelled due to a controversy over a romantic relationship between a Jew and a Christian. Unlike Bridget Loves Bernie, however, there was apparently no controversy over the premise of Chicken Soup. Looking back it should come as no surprise that Chicken Soup did not go through the same controversy that Bridget Loves Bernie had. It was only three years later that Love & War debuted on CBS. The show starred Jay Thomas as a Jewish man involved with a Christian woman (initially Susan Dey and later Annie Potts). There was no real controversy over the show and it ran for three seasons.
As to why Chicken Soup was cancelled, in an article from Knight-Ridder newspapers at the time, Jane Gretemeyer of ABC said that the show had been cancelled because it could not hold onto enough of the 7 million viewers who watched Roseanne. Despite ABC's official statements on the cancellation of Chicken Soup, it does seem possible that its cancellation was due to a controversy in which comedian Jackie Mason found himself embroiled at the time. Jackie Mason (who was at the time campaigning for Republican New York City mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani) made comments in an interview with the Village Voice regarding Democratic New York City mayoral candidate David Dinkins, as well as race relations between Jews and African Americans. These comments were widely construed as racist, with the ultimate result being that Jackie Mason no longer campaigned for Rudy Giuliani. It then seems possible, even likely, then that ABC cancelled Chicken Soup more due to Jackie Mason's comments than the fact that Chicken Soup did not retain a lot of the audience for Roseanne. Indeed, it must be pointed out that its replacement, Coach, retained even less of the audience for Roseanne (it ranked 18th for the season), yet it was renewed for another year (in fact, Coach would run for another eight seasons).