Friday, November 12, 2004

A Short History of Umbrella Series

This week I have been thinking of the old NBC Mystery Movie series of the Seventies; however, it occurred to me that before writing about it, I should probably take a look at the sort of series it was. The NBC Mystery Movie was what is called in the television industry a "wheel show," more commonly referred to as an "umbrella series." That is, it was a title under which several, regular series were rotated within the same time slot. The NBC Mystery Movie is by far the best known and most popular of these series, although it was hardly the first.

I really have no idea what the first umbrella series was, although I am thinking it may well have been Warner Brothers Presents. In 1954, Walt Disney Studios became the first major Hollywood studio to enter the television industry with Disneyland. Disneyland proved to be enormously successful, not only providing ABC with much needed ratings, but giving Disney a powerful means of promoting their movies. This did not go unnoticed by Warner Brothers, who saw in television a way of publicising their motion pictures. ABC was fortunate enough to be the network on which Warner Brothers decided to debut their first venture into television.

That first Warner Brothers series, Warner Brothers Presents, was an umbrella series which featured three rotating shows: King's Row (based on the novel and the movie of the same name), following the travails of a small town doctor (played by Jack Kelly); Casablanca (based on the movie of the same name), with Charles McGraw in the role of Rick Blaine; and Cheyenne, a Western featuring Clint Walker as a drifter in the Wild West. The series would open with a shot of the famous, trademark Warner Brothers shield while a voice over announced, "From the entertainment capital of the world comes Warner Brothers Presents. The hour that presents Hollywood to you. Made for television by one of the great motion picture studios." Following the episode of each show would be a segment called "Behind the Cameras at Warner Brothers," hosted by actor Gig Young. James Dean on the set of Giant, director John Ford on location with The Searchers, and others promoting various Warner Brothers projects appeared in this segment.

Unfortunately for both Warner Brothers and ABC, Warner Brothers Presents was not well received by either viewers or critics. Of the three rotating series, only Cheyenne proved to be a hit. In the end, both King's Row and Casablanca were cancelled and the idea of Warner Brothers Presents was dispensed with. Despite a rocky start, this was not the end of the relationship between Warner Brothers and ABC. Warner Brothers would produce some of ABC's biggest series in the Fifties, among them Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and Hawaiian Eye. As for Cheyenne, it lasted eight years in all.

The failure of Warner Brothers Presents may well have disuaded the networks from any more experiments with umbrella series. For the remainder of the Fifties and much of the Sixties, none of the networks tried the format again. In the late Sixties, however, NBC seemed willing to experiment, while Universal Studios was more than willing to provide NBC with shows that were off the beaten track of most television. In 1968 NBC debuted a rather unique show, produced by Universal, called The Name of the Game. The Name of the Game was not an umbrella series per se, although it did come very close. Instead of shows, The Name of the Game rotated its stars. The series was set at Howard Publications, the publisher of various magazines. Tony Franciosa played Jeff Dillion, a crusading investigative reporter for People Magazine (nothing like the magazine that Time-Life would publish several years later). Robert Stack played Dan Farrel, a former FBI agent and senior editor of Crime Magazine. Gene Barry played Glenn Howard, owner of Howard Publications. Each character was featured in his own self contained episodes on a rotating basis. The Name of the Game was the most expensive show produced for its time, with each episode costing $400,000. Each episode also ran 90 minutes (the only other show on at the time with 90 minute eipsodes was The Virginian). The series proved successful enough to run three years.

Perhaps because of the success of Name of the Game, NBC debuted a true umbrella series in the 1969-1970 season. Three series were rotated under th title The Bold Ones: The New Doctors, The Lawyers, and The Protectors (which centred on a police chief and a district attorney). With the second season of The Bold Ones, The Protectors was gone, replaced by a series called The Senator (with Hal Hobrook as the title character). By the 1971-1972 season, The New Doctors and The Lawyers would be the only two series left under The Bold Ones title. With the 1972-1973 season, The Bold Ones effectively ceased to be an umbrella series. Although the umbrella title remained, The New Doctors was the only show which aired under the heading of The Bold Ones.

With 1970-1971 season NBC took an even greater risk. Instead of rotating series under an umbrella title, they aired four mini-series for six weeks in a row each under the title Four in One. Two of the series would prove successful enough to outlast the Four in One format. One was the horror anthology series created by Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame), Night Gallery. It would go on to run two more seasons following the demise of Four in One. McCloud would go on to become one of the rotating series on the NBC Mystery Movie. San Francisco International Airport and The Psychiatrist were not so lucky. Like Name of the Game before it and The NBC Mystery Movie following it, Four in One was produced by Universal.

The NBC Mystery Movie debuted in 1971 on Wednesday nights with three rotating series, each with ninety minute episodes: Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife. Columbo centred on a rumpled LAPD detective (Peter Falk) whose bumbling exterior belied a mind like a steel trap. McCloud followed the adventures of a Deputy U. S. Marshal from Taos, New Mexico assigned to the NYPD. McMillan and Wife focused on San Francisco Police Commissioner Stewart McMillan (Rock Hudson), whose wife Sally (Susan St. James) insists in getting involved in his cases. The NBC Mystery Movie defied the odds that faced most rotating series before it and became a smash hit. It was successful enough that with the 1972-1973 season NBC moved the original NBC Mystery Movie to Sunday nights and created a new set of rotating series for Wednesday night. Eventually the Wednesday Night NBC Mystery Movie would be moved to Tuesday nights, but the Sunday Night NBC Mystery Movie would continue to run until 1976. I'll write more about The NBC Mystery Movie in my next entry.

The NBC Mystery Movie proved successful enough that both ABC and CBS attempted to jump on the umbrella series bandwaggon. The Men debuted on ABC in 1972 with three rotating series: Assignment Vienna, The Delphi Bureau, and Jigsaw. Assignment Vienna followed the adventures of Jake Webster (Robert Conrad), a man without a past who becomes part of a government organisation that works with Interpol and other European law enforcement agencies to fight crime around the world. The Delphi Bureau centred on the secret government agency of the same name, with Laurence Luckinbill as rumpled spy Glenn Garth Gregory (the series was created by Man From U.N.C.L.E. creator Sam Rolfe). Jigsaw focused on Lieutenant Frank Dain (James Wainwright) of the Missing Persons Bureau with the California State Police Department. The Men failed to catch on with audiences, facing stiff competition from Ironside on NBC and the Thursday Night Movie on CBS.

That same season NBC tried another series similar to The Name of the Game with rotating stars. Search focused on Probe, a subsidiary of the World Securities Coroporation. Probe hired its agents to various governments, companies, and individuals to retrieve missing objects (jewels, money, documents) or people. Each agent was equipped with scanners which would transmit all kinds of information (everything from the agent's health to what the agent saw and heard) back to Probe headquarters. The agents were also in constant contact with Probe through a tiny transmitter implanted behind the ear. Burgess Meredith as V.C.R Cameron was the one constant in the series; Camerson was Probe's Controller, who watched over the computer room to which all information from the agents was transmitted. Hugh O'Brian played agent Hugh Lockwood (Probe One), who dealt in those cases not related to organised crime. Tony Franciosa played Nick Bianco (Omega Probe), who dealt with those cases involving organised crime or criminal activity. Doug McClure as C.R. Grover was designated "Standby Probe." In an emergency, he was the agent who was sent in. Search was a very high tech series for its time and its format of rotating stars set it apart from other shows on in the early Seventies. Perhaps for that reason, it failed to find an audience.

Despite the failure of both The Men and Search, CBS tried its own hand at an umbrella series in the 1973-1974 season. The New CBS Tuesday Night Movie rotated three elements: Shaft, Hawkins, and The CBS Tuesday Night Movie. Shaft featured Richard Roundtree as John Shaft, the same character that had brought him fame in three movies. Unfortunately, the series was very different from the motion pictures. John Shaft not only cooperated with the police, but would actually call LT. Al Rossi (Ed Barth) for assistance! Fans of the Shaft movies were hardly happy with the series. Hawkins brought Jimmy Stewart once more to the small screen, this time as Billy Jim Hawkins, a West Virginia defence attorney. The CBS Tuesday Night Movie was simply whatever movie CBS decided to air in the time slot. The New CBS Tuesday Night Movie proved no more successful than The Men and was cancelled by the end of the season.

The NBC Mystery Movie would continue until the end of the 1976 season. Afterwards, umbrella series would be a rarity on American television. In the 1989-1990 season, ABC attempted to recapture the success of the The NBC Mystery Movie with their own ABC Mystery Movie. Columbo returned as one of the elements on the series, the other two being with B.L. Stryker and Gideon Oliver. B.L. Stryker featured Burt Reynolds as the title character, a burned out New Orleans Detective. Gideon Oliver centred on the character of that name (played by Louis Gossett Jr.), an anthropology professor at Columbia University who also solved crimes. Eventually Gideon Oliver was replaced by two other series. One was a revival of Kojak. The other, Christine Cromwell, featured Jaclyn Smith as the defence attorney of the title. The ABC Mystery Movie would only last one season, although new Columbo movies would continue to appear on and off throughout the Nineties.

The umbrella series or wheel show is a format that has a chequered history. In fact, it can be argued that there has only been one successful series of that type--The NBC Mystery Movie. I can only guess that perhaps television viewers are somewhat regular in their habits. They like for their favourite shows to be on once a week and at the same time every week. As to why The NBC Mystery Movie proved to be the exception to the rule, it is perhaps because the quality of its rotating series were such that viewers were willing to tune in once a week, even if it meant waiting a month for their particular favourite. Anyhow, in my next entry I'll examine The NBC Mystery Movie and some of the series that aired under that title.

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