Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Television's Worst Moments # 2: F TROOP's Premature End

The 1966-67 U.S. television season ended with more than its share of now legendary shows on the fence for renewal.   The ignominous end of CBS' GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (# 49 in the 1966-67 Nielsens) has been much discussed in television lore.  GILLIGAN had originally secured a spot on the 1967-68 schedule, only to be bumped at the last minute by William S. Paley himself (who wanted # 34 GUNSMOKE moved from Saturday). Paley's decision proved to be a solid long-term choice, as GUNSMOKE zoomed back into the top ten and ran for 8 more seasons. Still, the move deprived GILLIGAN fans of a fourth season and proper sendoff.

Major, we were told a 30 share was golden!
Much has also been written about how THE MONKEES (# 42 in Nielsen's 1966-67 ratings) and STAR TREK (# 52) were saved by letter writing campaigns. (Amazingly, the latter would never rank higher than that 52nd place showing during its three year run!)  Other survivors included I DREAM OF JEANNIE (# 43), THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (# 46), VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (# 63) and THE WILD, WILD WEST (# 53, staggered by TARZAN that season but surviving and eventually driving it off the air a year later).

We're over and IRON HORSE survives?  It's the Alamo all over again!
You have probably heard far less about a show that outranked all of the above at # 40 in 1966-67 and was just finishing its second season as the eighth highest ranked show on its troubled network (ABC):  F TROOP.   After holding steady despite a change in day and time, drawing 31.3 percent of the audience (18.8 rating), earning an Emmy nomination (Larry Storch) and finishing the season strong, F TROOP still ended its run after only 65 episodes on August 31, 1967.  It's enough to make one cry like Corporal Agarn.

From the outset, it had always been an uphill battle for F TROOP (as I detailed in my two part review of the Season One DVD).  The western sendup premiered on a network that was in third place every season for the entire 1960-69 decade (!) and was scheduled against CBS' THE RED SKELTON SHOW on Tuesdays at 9 ET.  SKELTON had killed four consecutive ABC entries in the time slot and ranked as television's # 4 show.  Complicating matters, financial considerations (from both ABC and ever-"frugal" Warner Brothers) dictated that F TROOP would air in black and white during the 1965-66 season while well over half of prime time was already in color, and "full color" status was only a season away for all three networks.

Good thing Red doesn't have any rifles
Despite the handicaps, F TROOP survived and thrived against SKELTON.  While Red continued to win the time slot by a healthy margin, F TROOP managed three top 10 Nielsen finishes in the first half of the season and was "in the top 25" according to TV Guide's December 11, 1965 issue (with a cover story on star Forrest Tucker).  In the magazine's December 25, 1965 edition, Roger Youman's survey of reviews showed that F TROOP ranked number one among the 35 new programs critically, with fully 80 percent of the 40 newspaper columnists recommending a Fort Courage visit on Tuesdays.  While a number of successful mid-season replacements (DAKTARI, the two top 10 BATMANs) premiered to high Nielsens and pushed the show just outside the top 30 in the season ending rankings, Tucker, Storch and company remained comfortably above a 32 share and earned a second season--in color!

Which, sadly, ended up being the final season (reviewed by yours truly here).  But....why, when the show finished 40th out of 113 network shows in a season with few new breakout hits?

Why?  Why?

Did F TROOP lose too much of lead-in BATMAN's audience?  Looking at the ratings, I'd have to say not only no, but Hell no.  According to the Television magazine (# 24, Vol. 8) cited above, BATMAN ranked # 37 with a 33 share, while F TROOP, as noted above, ranked # 40 with a 31.3 share.  Not much of a drop.  A far better job of holding onto viewers than (say) # 57 (!) THAT GIRL (28.8 share) did retaining the lead-in audience it received from # 7 BEWITCHED two hours later on Thursdays.

Hell, F TROOP outrated every show I had after 1954!
Did F TROOP fade badly down the stretch and limp to the finish line?  The numbers show the opposite.  The earliest Nielsen study I could find for the season (two weeks ending October 9, 1966) showed F TROOP in 44th place with a 17.8 rating.  At mid-season in early January, VARIETY reported the show was averaging a 30.7 share and was in the "probable" category for renewal.  At season's end, the rating was 18.8 and the share was 31.3: a 5% increase over the October rating and a 2% increase over the mid-season share. 

Wild Eagle can't figure it out either
So it would appear that F TROOP took a hit initially after moving to a new night and time, then steadily regained its 1965-66 audience as the season progressed.  For the two week period ending March 5, 1967, F TROOP ranked 23rd, its best showing of the second season.  If anything, these numbers indicate that the show was building positive momentum down the stretch.

Well, okay, did F TROOP take a creative nosedive?  As I noted in my review, the show did go through a bit of a sophomore slump in the season's middle third.  The reduced involvement of Charles Rondeau, Ed James and Seaman Jacobs in season two hurt, but Austin and Irma Kalish added some inventive scripts, including THE DAY THEY SHOT AGARN and the final two episodes, OUR BRAVE IN F TROOP (a terrific refocusing on O'Rourke Enterprises and the introduction to Fort Courage's namesake, played by Cliff Arquette) and IS THIS FORT REALLY NECESSARY?, a very funny entry that also deftly weaved in more plot than most hour long dramatic westerns.  Season Two didn't quite match the quality of the first as a whole but ended on a creative high, closing with arguably the two very best color episodes.

In addition to the points made above, only one of the 39 prime time shows ahead of F TROOP received an eviction notice: CBS' MR. TERRIFIC (# 36), a not-so-terrific BATMAN ripoff and midseason replacement that occupied the second half-hour of GUNSMOKE's new 1967-68 home.  F TROOP was ABC's highest rated show to leave the airwaves.  To name a few examples: THAT GIRL (# 57), HOLLYWOOD PALACE (# 41), BIG VALLEY (# 45), FELONY SQUAD (# 47) and IRON HORSE (# 48) were among the network's shows ranked below F TROOP that were renewed to live another day.  The second highest ABC series to end in 1966-67 was THE FUGITIVE, at # 50.

To sum it up, if you're thinking that it just didn't make any sense for ABC to cancel its second highest rated sitcom (behind BEWITCHED), you're right.  And in fact, the network didn't.  So who was our true villain?  Those aforementioned cheapskates over at Warner Brothers Television. 

In Jeff Kisseloff's excellent 1991 book THE BOX, executive producer William T. Orr singled out WB vice president Benny Kalmenson as the culprit, after noting that their failure to shoot the classic Warner shows (i.e. MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP) in color cost them millions in the long run. 

Millions, I say, millions!  Outrageous!!!
Said Orr:  "Today, all those shows would be on (in syndication) if they were in color. The only thing on is 'F TROOP'. The first year of that was black and white and the second year was in color, and then Benny (Kalmenson) had it taken off because we were three thousand dollars over budget." 

Later that same year, Kalmenson famously called Arthur Penn's groundbreaking feature BONNIE AND CLYDE "a piece of shit".  Fortunately for Warners, Benny didn't have enough pull to kill that project.

Wild Eagle sniffs what Kalmenson must have been drinking
We're left to wonder what might have been.  Would F TROOP have continued its upward ratings trend in a third season?  Would the show's creative resurgence have continued as well?  Perhaps the great Larry Storch would have received a second Emmy nomination and bested childhood friend Don Adams in a rematch.

One thing is certain: despite the untimely and undeserved demise that left it 35 episodes short of the hundred episode mark, F TROOP passed the test of time with flying colors, staying in syndication long after its replacement, THE FLYING NUN, had faded from screens entirely despite the presence of a young Sally Field.  Jack Warner should have trusted his son in law (Orr).  For depriving us of at least one more season of merriment with the two Greatest Actors Who Ever Lived, THE HORN SECTION deems Benny Kalmenson to be responsible for another of TV's All Time Worst Moments.  He retired from the studio in 1969.  If only he'd done it three years earlier....

$3,000 over budget.  At 31 second season episodes that's 97 bucks per show, Benny!  Jeez.
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