It is a common assumption that doing well in the Nielsen ratings assures the survival of a television show on the American broadcast networks. It is certainly true that this is usually the case. After all, along with several other factors how well a show performs in the ratings has a direct impact on the advertising rate a network can charge for the show. Put more simply, high ratings can often mean big money.
Unfortunately, while high ratings usually insure the survival of a show, it is not always the case. A number of considerations go into the broadcast networks' decisions when to cancel shows and sometimes even high ratings may not be enough to save a particular show. In fact, throughout television history there have been some very high rated shows that have been cancelled. This is part two of a list of some of the highest rated shows ever cancelled.
Here I must thank my brother +Berry Canote who helped compile much of this list, going season by season to do so. I believe this list to be accurate, but given the Nielsen Company has been doing television ratings since 1950, it is possible that a show may have been left out.
The Six Million Dollar Man did very well in the ratings. By its second season (the 1975-1976 television season) it ranked #9 out of all the shows on the air in the Nielsen ratings. During the show's second season, a two part episode aired entitled "The Bionic Woman". In the episode one of Steve Austin's old flames, tennis pro Jamie Summers (played by Lindsay Summers), has an accident while skydiving that results in her being seriously injured. Her right arm, right ear, and both legs were then replaced with bionic parts. Unfortunately, Jamie's body rejected the bionic parts and she died at the end of the episode. The character of Jamie Summers proved popular, however, so that ABC asked the producers to bring her back. It was then revealed in the debut of episode of The Six Million Dollar Man's third season that Jamie Summers did not actually die and had been saved by being put into suspended animation. The continued popularity of the character Jamie Summers resulted in her being given her own spin-off series. The Bionic Woman debuted on 14 January 1976.
The Bionic Woman proved to be as successful as The Six Million Dollar Man. In fact, for the 1975-1976 season it actually did better than The Six Million Dollar Man in the ratings--it ranked #5 for the season, while The Six Million Dollar Man ranked #7. The Bionic Woman continued to have sterling ratings in its second season (its first full season) as well. It ranked #14 for the 1976-1977 season. Because of its high ratings, it then came as a rather big surprise when ABC abruptly cancelled The Bionic Woman in April 1977.
In newspaper articles at the time, according to Fred Silverman, then President of ABC Entertainment, The Bionic Woman had done well in the ratings until the beginning of 1977 when its ratings started to go into a downward spiral. Mr. Silverman elaborated by saying that its ratings had been marginal--that is, it was receiving between 29 and 31 percent of the audience. He explained in instances like that one has to make a projection and figure out how well the show will perform in the ratings in the coming year. Thinking that the superhero cycle (which had included such shows as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and Wonder Woman) was coming to an end, he said that ABC thought "there was no long term potential" in The Bionic Woman. In other words, ABC did not cancel The Bionic Woman for its current ratings, but for the ratings they thought the show would have in the near future. Here it must be noted that ABC also cancelled Wonder Woman at the same time. Wonder Woman was picked up by CBS and went onto run another two seasons. As to The Six Million Dollar Man, it ran only one more season.
ABC's cancellation of The Bionic Woman did not mean the end for the show. NBC picked up The Bionic Woman for the 1977-1978 season. Unfortunately this would only be a temporary reprieve for the show. The ratings for The Bionic Woman on NBC were hardly spectacular and the show was cancelled for a second time. The characters of Jamie Summers and Steve Austin would return in reunion movies, the first of which was The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman in 1987. This was followed by Bionic Showdown in 1989 and Bionic Ever After? in 1994. In the 2007-2008 season re-imagining of the original show, simply titled Bionic Woman, debuted on NBC. The show proved to be a failure in the ratings and was cancelled after only 8 episodes.
As essentially a continuation of The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry R.F.D. proved fairly successful. For both its first and second seasons it ranked #4 in the ratings. It was still doing respectably well in the ratings when it was unexpectedly cancelled in its third season. Mayberry R.F.D. would be the highest rated victim of what was even then being called "the Rural Purge", CBS' mass cancellation of shows that appealed to either older audiences, audiences living in rural areas, or both.
Although at the time it might have seemed that the Rural Purge was a spur of the moment decision on the part of CBS, it had actually been coming for some time. As early as 1967 CBS had expressed concern over its ageing audience. In an article in a March 1967 issue of Variety it was even reported that CBS was planning to redo its schedule to better compete with NBC for younger viewers. It was that year that CBS cancelled its long running game shows I've Got a Secret and What's My Line because their audiences were simply too old. In May 1969 at the CBS affiliates' meeting the network's president Robert Wood announced "...a young, fresh, new approach to programming" for the network. CBS may have been making plans for what would become known as "the Rural Purge" as early as October 1969. As mentioned earlier, it seems quite likely that part of the reason CBS cancelled The Red Skelton Hour during the 1969-1970 season was that its audience was older and living in rural areas.
Regardless, it was during the 1970-1971 season that CBS cancelled an inordinately large number of shows whose audiences were either too old, too rural, or both. Among the shows cancelled were The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Family Affair, Hogan's Heroes, To Rome with Love, and The Ed Sullivan Show. While some of these shows had fallen dramatically in the ratings, others were doing relatively well. Mayberry R.F.D. may be the best example of this. While its ratings had fallen from what they had been in its third season, the show still ranked #15 in the ratings for the season. Even as the Rural Purge was taking place there were those who thought Mayberry R.F.D. would be renewed for another season. As it turned out it wasn't and as a result it became the 3rd highest rated show (after The Red Skelton Hour and Gang Busters) to have been cancelled at the time.
Unfortunately for Hee Haw, the 1970-1971 season was the season of the Rural Purge. Like Mayberry R.F.D. Hee Haw was then cancelled despite the high ratings it received. And like Mayberry R.F.D. it was cancelled because its audience was simply too rural. Fans of Hee Haw mounted a letter writing campaign in an attempt to save the show to no avail. While CBS had cancelled Hee Haw and had no intention of returning it to the air, this did not mean the show was dead. Its producers put Hee Haw into syndication where it would run for another twenty one years. It was in 1992, over two decades after it had been cancelled by CBS, that Hee-Haw finally went off the air.
Unfortunately, even great ratings would not be enough to save Inside Schwartz. NBC felt that the show was not retaining enough of the audience of Friends and cancelled it after only airing 9 episodes with four episodes left unaired. It probably did not help that Inside Schwartz received largely negative reviews, with The Los Angeles Times describing it as "a dumb guy show". Its successor in the time slot, Leap of Faith (which I discussed in Part One) would do even better in the time slot, ranking #12 for the season. All the same it was also cancelled.
The Virginian proved to be a hit from the very beginning, spending seven of its nine seasons in the top twenty five shows. Unfortunately, with season eight the show's ratings dropped. The Virginian was then retooled to make it more appealing to young viewers. A new theme was composed for the show, complete with a new credit sequence. The entire look of the show as changed as well. New characters were added, while some old ones were dropped. Finally, the title of the show was changed from The Virginian to The Men from Shiloh to reflect the changes to the show.
The transformation of The Virginian into The Men from Shiloh certainly helped the show in the ratings. For the 1969-1970 season the show wasn't even in the top thirty for the year. For the 1970-1971 season The Men from Shiloh had risen to #18 in the ratings for the year. Unfortunately, it was not enough to save the show. As mentioned earlier, the 1970-1971 season was the season of the Rural Purge. While CBS cancelled the bulk of shows appealing to rural audiences, older audiences, or both, NBC also cancelled a few shows because of demographics. Among them was The Men from Shiloh. Like Mayberry R.F.D. and Hee Haw, then, The Men from Shiloh fell victim to the network's obsession with the 18-49 demographic.
While Vegas did not receive the ratings of either of those shows, it still did very well in the over all ratings. In fact, it ranked #19 for the season. Unfortunately, while Vegas performed very well in the over all ratings, it did very poorly in the ratings for adults aged 18-49, the demographic that television networks desire the most. It was because of this that in March CBS replaced Vegas on Tuesday night with Golden Boy, a show that did even worse in the ratings for the 18-49 demographic (and the over all ratings, for that matter) and was ultimately cancelled as a result. As to Vegas, it was moved to Friday nights where its ratings fell dramatically. CBS cancelled Vegas on 10 May 2013. In many ways the cancellation of Vegas could be considered the modern day equivalent of the cancellations of many shows during the Rural Purge. Quite simply, it was cancelled because its audience was too old.
Looking at the top ten highest rated shows ever cancelled, it seems clear that it takes more than high ratings to remain on the air. As important as how many people are watching a given show is precisely who is watching a given show. Out of the top ten highest rated shows ever cancelled, The Red Skelton Show, Mayberry R.F.D., Hee Haw, The Men from Shiloh, and Vegas were all cancelled because their audiences were too old, too rural, or both. It is not enough for a show to have high ratings, it must also have high ratings within the 18-49 demographic and high ratings in urban areas at that.
From looking at the top ten highest rated shows ever cancelled it also seems clear that following the #1 show on the air can be something of a curse. While a show is guaranteed high ratings if it follows the #1 show, it can also find itself cancelled if it does not retain enough of the #1 show's audience. Inside Schwartz was cancelled for that reason, and Leap of Faith probably was as well. While other reasons seemed to have played roles in the cancellations of Bridget Loves Bernie and Chicken Soup, following the #1 show on television certainly did not help them.
Finally, it would seem that controversy will kill a show even if it has high ratings. Bridget Loves Bernie was a ratings smash, yet it seems likely that protests from Jewish groups played a large role in the show getting the axe. Chicken Soup did very well in the ratings, but it seems clear that the controversy over Jackie Mason's remarks during the New York City mayoral race insured its demise. More recently CBS cancelled Rob despite the fact that it ranked #25 for the season (according to our list that makes it the 15th highest show ever cancelled). It seems likely that it was cancelled because many believed it portrayed outright Mexican stereotypes. Quite simply, the fact is that controversy will often kill a show no matter how high its ratings are.
As I said earlier, in the end it would seem that simply having high ratings will not guarantee the survival of a show. Many factors go into the American broadcast networks decisions on whether to renew or cancel a particular show. Sometimes those factors are enough to kill a show no matter how high its ratings are.