As many people already know, Star Trek was initially conceived by Gene Roddenberry, although later producer Gene L. Coon and story editor D. C. Fontana would play pivotal roles in shaping what we now know as Star Trek. It was on March 11 1964 that Gene Roddenberry wrote a short treatment for a prospective science fiction series to be called Star Trek. He initially pitched the idea for his new science fiction show to MGM, who had produced his single season show The Lieutenant. MGM turned Star Trek down. He found a buyer in Desilu, then best known for having produced the classic I Love Lucy. Desilu first took the prospective series to CBS, with whom they had a first-look deal. CBS turned Star Trek down on the grounds that they were already developing another science fiction show, Lost in Space.
While NBC was impressed by "The Cage", they ultimately rejected it in February1965 . They commissioned a second pilot in March 1965. Contrary to popular belief, Star Trek was not the first prospective television show to have a second pilot made (it is difficult to say what show has that honour, but Lum & Abner, whose first pilot was made in 1948, would ultimately have four different pilots made). While other shows before Star Trek had second pilots made, it was an unusual step for NBC to take at the time. NBC did ask for changes before the second pilot was shot. The network was not particularly keen on the characters of Number One and Mr. Spock. Gene Roddenberry eliminated Number One, but kept the character of Mr. Spock, who became the breakout character on the series. It was before the second pilot was made that Jeffrey Hunter decided that he did not want to do the show. It was then that William Shatner was cast as Captain James T. Kirk.
While Star Trek upon its premiere did not fare very well with critics, it did perform fairly well in the ratings. With its competition on CBS and ABC consisting primarily of reruns, it received a 40.6 share in the Nielsen ratings and won its time slot. Unfortunately, it would not fare so well the following week. The show dropped to 29.4 share and then dropped further in the ratings for the next two weeks. Ultimately the ratings for Star Trek in its first season could be described as "moderate" at best. For the 1966-1967 season Star Trek ranked 52nd out of all the shows on the air. With over 100 shows in prime time in the 1966-1967 season, this was not terribly bad, but it was not very good either. In earlier years NBC might well have cancelled Star Trek save for one thing: demographics.
It is a myth that the networks only discovered demographics in the late Sixties. In fact, in 1963 NBC began paying attention not only to how many people were watching a given show, but who was watching it as well. Namely, NBC wanted well-educated, wealthy, young adults. According to the executive of audience measurement at the time Paul Klein (today perhaps best known for developing the theory of the least objectionable programme) in an article in Television Magazine in 1967, Star Trek was renewed after its first season because it delivered an audience of well-educated, upper income, young men. Of course, the audience for Star Trek did not simply consist of wealthy, educated, young men in the key demographic (18 to 34 years old). It also proved popular with teenagers. In the July 27 1968 issue of TV Guide there was an article (Who Watches What?") by Dick Hobson on A.C. Nielsen Co.'s demographic surveys made from October 23 to December 3 1967. Star Trek ranked no. 4 in the Top Ten Among Teenagers 13-17, right below another NBC show, The Monkees.
Among the earliest references to Star Trek occurred in the July 8 1964 "Tele-Vues" syndicated column by Terry Vernon, in which it was mentioned that Desilu had made a deal with NBC to produce "an hour-long science fiction series Star Trek." Another early reference to Star Trek was in gossip columnist Hedda Hopper's December 4 1964 column, in which she wrote about Susan Oliver playing Vina in the series pilot. Of course, once the show debuted references to Star Trek became much more frequent in newspapers. Star Trek was featured on the cover of the weekly newspaper supplement TV Showtime on September 18 1966. In syndicated columnist Charles Witbeck's December 4 1966 column Gene Roddenberry discussed the casting of Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. An article that appeared in many newspapers across the United States in July and August 1967 told how DeForest Kelley, then best known for playing heavies in Westerns, was cast as Dr. McCoy by getting a different haircut, one that resembled that of the late President John F. Kennedy. Bob Thomas's May 6 1967 "Inside Hollywood" column discussed Star Trek as an intellectual show.
Many of the newspaper articles about Star Trek during its original run centred on its status as a "prestige show". Bob Thomas in his May 6 1967 "Inside Hollywood" column noted Star Trek's status as a show with appeal to intellectuals. With regards to its renewal for a second season, he noted, "Trade observers also believe the NBC decision was influenced by the fact that Star Trek was a prestige show in a season sadly lacking in prestige." In an August 25 1968 article on TV shows changing time slots, Associated Press television-radio writer Cynthia Lowry included Star Trek alongside Mannix as shows that "may suffer from undeserved inattention." While reviews upon its debut may have been decidedly mixed, Star Trek developed a reputation over its original run as a quality show.
Not only was there Star Trek merchandise on store shelves in the late Sixties, but there were also books. In 1967 Bantam Books issued a collection of short stories adapted from episodes of Star Trek by science fiction writer James Blish. The first title, Star Trek, was followed by two more similar collections while the show was still on the air and ultimately ten more such books. Star Trek also saw the publication of one of the earliest books devoted to the making of a television show. The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield was published in 1968 in between the second and third seasons.
While it was still in its first run Star Trek was regarded as a prestige show. It was also a show that received a good deal of coverage in newspapers and magazine, and one whose characters (at least Mr. Spock) appear to have been recognisable even to people who didn't watch the show. It appealed largely to well-educated, affluent, young men and teenagers, and many of them were fiercely loyal to the show. Sadly, it would appear that while Star Trek had a cult following even in its original run, its audience was still relatively small when compared to high rated shows such as Bewitched or The Beverly Hillbillies.
Indeed, for its second season NBC moved Star Trek to Friday night at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central. Given it aired on Friday night when much of its audience would go out for the night, it should be no surprise that its ratings would drop. The fact that it was scheduled against the high rated Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and the first half hour of The CBS Friday Night Movies only made matters worse. Still, with an audience comprised of largely wealthy, well-educated young men, Star Trek did well enough for NBC to renew it.
Even though Star Trek was in no real danger of cancellation, the reaction of fans who thought the show might be cancelled was impressive. In fact, it was impressive enough that following the March 1 1968 episode, "The Omega Glory", NBC announced that Star Trek would continue to air on the network. They aired the same announcement following the March 8 1968 episode, "The Ultimate Computer" the next week.
Sadly, the third season of Star Trek would be its last. Initially NBC planned to move Star Trek to Monday night at 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central. Unfortunately, that time slot was then occupied by Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, a mid-season replacement that ranked no.21 for the 1967-1968 season. Its producer George Schlatter objected strenuously to Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In being moved from its Monday night time slot. NBC then scheduled Star Trek on Friday night at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central, a Friday night death slot if there ever was one. Its older fans would be out for the night by that time, while its youngest fans would already be in bed. Worse yet, it aired opposite the last hour of The CBS Friday Night Movies. To make things even worse, Star Trek was now seen on only 181 out of the 210 NBC affiliates.
Of course, as history shows Star Trek would have a phenomenally successful afterlife as a syndicated rerun. Perhaps as yet another mark of a show that was somehow different from similarly rated shows, as early as its first season there were those who saw potential in reruns of Star Trek. In 1967, while Star Trek was still in its first season, Kaiser Broadcasting bought the syndication rights to the show. Once Star Trek entered syndication in 1969 Kaiser Broadcasting scheduled it in early afternoon or evening time slots on its stations where it was often opposite the local news on other stations. The end result was that Star Trek was receiving very high ratings on Kaiser Broadcasting's stations, not to mention an audience of primarily young males. Other independent stations took note of Kaiser Broadcasting's success, so that other independent stations picked up the series. In February 1970 Star Trek was airing on 61 stations. By March 1972 around 125 stations were airing the show. By May 1973 that number had increased to 143 stations.
Star Trek began as a show with a cult following that survived primarily because it appealed to a small audience in a key demographic. Through a highly successful syndication run it became a television phenomenon and eventually a multimedia franchise. There can be no doubt that it is one of the most successful shows in the history of American television. That Star Trek is still airing fifty years after its debut is remarkable. That it spawned an entire industry is more remarkable still.