Sunday, February 28, 2010

How Gunsmoke Gunned Down Gilligan's Island

There can be no argument that Gilligan's Island was one of the most successful television series of all time. The show has been translated into over a dozen languages and aired in 74 countries. It even managed what seemed impossible, surpassing I Love Lucy in syndication. What might surprise many of the show's loyal viewers, at least those unaware of its history, is that Gilligan's Island only ran three seasons. Many might conclude that it was simply cancelled due to poor ratings. After all, this is why the vast majority of shows are cancelled. In truth, however, Gilligan's Island had respectable ratings until the very end. Its cancellation came about not due to low ratings, but the feelings at the upper reaches of CBS about the show and about another legendary show called Gunsmoke.

The seeds for Gilligan's Island were sown even as it debuted on CBS on September 26, 1964. Even today Gilligan's Island is sometimes cited as an example of bad television, but the reviews which came in from critics in the wake of its premiere were ever worse. Gilligan's Island was firmly trounced by critics at the time. Not only were the notices bad on the whole, but many critics cited it as one of the worst shows ever made.This did not sit well with the head of CBS William S. Paley, who always prided himself on the quality of programming on the network.

Unfortunately for Mr. Paley, Gilligan's Island proved to be a hit. Not only did it routinely win its time slot, but for the 1964-1965 season it ranked #18 in Nielsen's top twenty five shows. At the time CBS had a policy in scheduling to keep successful shows in the same time slot; however, an exception would be made for Gilligan's Island, which had proven to be an embarrassment to the network. The series was then moved from its 8:30 PM Eastern Saturday time slot to 8:00 PM Eastern Thursday for for the 1965-1966 season. The change in time slot hurt Gilligan's Island very little in the ratings. The show came in 22nd n Nielsen's top twenty five shows. For its third season Gilligan's Island was moved once more, this time to 7:30 PM Eastern Monday. While the show fell out of the top twenty five shows according to Nielsen for the season, its ratings were still respectable and it consistently won its time slot. CBS not only renewed Gilligan's Island, but decided to keep it in the same time slot. It would be followed by a new situation comedy entitled Doc, starring Eldon Quick as a young physician hired by an older physician played by John McIntire.

While Gilligan's Island was set to return in the same time slot for the 1967-1968 season, a television stalwart was set to go off the air. Gunsmoke was one of three Westerns to debut in the fall of 1955 (the others were The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Cheyenne) and spurred the phenomenally huge cycle towards Westerns in the late Fifties. From 1957 to 1961 it was the number one show on television. Unfortunately, after Gunsmoke was expanded from a half hour to an hour, it experienced a slide in the ratings. By the 1966-1967 season it had fallen to #34 for the year in the ratings. While this was still respectable, it was a far cry from the days when it was the #1 show on the air. At the same time, its audience had grown older and its audience was largely rural. It was then in the 1966/1967 that the programmers at CBS decided to cancel Gunsmoke at the end of its twelfth season.

The outcry was immediate. Critics and viewers alike were outraged. Senate Robert Byrd even criticised the network's decision on the Senate floor. Even with such outcry, it is quite possible that CBS would not have given Gunsmoke a reprieve had it not been for one thing. Quite simply, Gunsmoke was among the favourite shows of both William S. Paley and his wife Babe. When he saw that Gunsmoke was not on the fall 1967-1968 schedule, he immediately called CBS vice president Mike Dann and demanded that the show be renewed. With visions of losing their jobs, CBS' programmers then rushed to find a solution to their scheduling dilemma. Unfortunately their solution would not be one that would be pleasing to the cast and crew of Gilligan's Island.

As mentioned above, Gilligan's Island had received atrocious notices upon its debut. This had won it no love from Wlliam S. Paley, who wanted programming on CBS to be high in quality. At the same time CBS' affiliates had shown an extreme dislike for the new sitcom Doc, which was set to follow Gilligan's Island. It was then decided that Gilligan's Island, which had always been a bit of an embarrassment to Mr. Paley, and Doc, which was not popular with the affiliates, would be cancelled and Gunsmoke would return in the 7:30 PM Eastern Monday time slot.

The repercussions of the reprieve Gunsmoke was given would not end with the cancellation of Gilligan's Island. In its new time slot, Gunsmoke made a miraculous recovery. It jumped from the bottom of #34 to the top ten for the 1967-1968 season. With such phenomenal ratings, the shows on NBC and ABC could not compete. On NBC The Monkees, which was directly against the first half hour of Gunsmoke, saw a drop in its ratings. The Man From U.N.C.L.E, whose first half hour aired against the second half hour of Gunsmoke, had already seen a drop in its ratings in its third season. In its fourth season its ratings dropped even more. As to the new series on ABC, Cowboy in Africa, it never had a chance. In the end, Gunsmoke would run another eight years. As to Gilligan's Island, it went onto become a sensation in syndication.

It was William S. Paley and his wife's love of Gunsmoke that would ultimately be the reason that Gilligan's Island ran only three seasons. What is more, the return of Gunsmoke would take down three other shows on the competing networks, two of which (The Monkees and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) are counted as classics in many quarters. While no one can say how things would have unfolded had Gunsmoke not been renewed and moved to Monday night, one can probably guess that things would have unfolded very differently.

(Credit Where Credit is Due Department: In addition to the usual news archives and IMDB, I relied a good deal on Inside Gilligan's Island by Sherwood Schwartz. This book is not only useful for anyone curious about the history of that series, but for anyone who wants an inside view on the inner workings of television series and broadcast networks in the Sixties).


Hal said...

I recently researched the entire 1966-67 season's worth of Nielsens for my F TROOP article on the blog awhile back (an even greater injustice than GILLIGAN's cancellation; Warners pulled the plug despite a rating of 18.8 and a 31.3 share; it was 40th out of 113 shows for the season and ABC wanted it back).

GILLIGAN slipped from # 22 the season before to # 49, but still maintained the 30.0 share that would typically get a show renewed. It was, however, slightly losing its timeslot in season 3 to THE MONKEES (# 42) and IRON HORSE (# 48), but all 3 shows were virtually even with a 30 share. HORSE was helped a bit in his second half, as GILLIGAN teammates were a VERY distant 3rd for CBS in the 8 PM ET half hour following GILLIGAN: RUN BUDDY RUN was 66th and cancelled at midseason, and replacement MR. TERRIFIC was a misleading 36th for the season (and the highest ranked show to end, with F TROOP being the second highest). I say misleading because TERRIFIC's premiere was 14th for the week. However, ratings dropped drastically after that, to RUN BUDDY RUN territory within 3 weeks. Those early episodes brought the average up.

GILLIGAN deserved a fourth season, but there are clear signs that the show was fading and it seems doubtful it would have lasted into a 5th season even if renewed. It's hard to say that CBS made a mistake since GUNSMOKE rebounded so strongly. Without question it competed against LAUGH-IN far more effectively than a fading GILLIGAN would have come January 1968.

Pokey said...

Sorry, but with all duie respect, the shopw debuted on Septmeber 26, not 24, 1964. Very good article there.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for the correction, Pokey. I've changed it to the accurate date!