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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 to Monday). 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 both a fourth season and a 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 # 27 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 the cancellation of a show that outranked all of the above at # 39 in 1966-67 and was just finishing its second consecutive season as the seventh highest ranked show on its troubled network (ABC):  F TROOP.   After holding steady despite a change in day and time, drawing a 31.3 share (19.2 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 was a competitive second with three top 10 Nielsen finishes in the first half of the season and was "in the top 25" at the time of 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 collection of that fall's reviews showed that F TROOP ranked number one among the 35 new programs critically, with 80 percent of the 40 newspaper columnists surveyed recommending a Fort Courage visit on Tuesdays.

Television magazine more or less echoed TV Guide in the March 1966 issue, noting F TROOP was ranked # 27 out of 99 shows with a 21.1 rating as of the week ending January 2, 1966.  While the show ended the season in 36th place out of 108 programs, its final ranking pushed down in part by more successful mid-season debuts than usual (i.e. DAKTARI and the two BATMANs), Tucker, Storch and company maintained a 20.4 rating and 31.3 share for the full season opposite CBS' invincible SKELTON (4th) and NBC's TUESDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES (60th).

For point of comparison, F TROOP posted an 11% increase over its predecessor at 9 PM Tuesdays, ABC's THE TYCOON (28.2 share during 1964-65).  F TROOP also outrated both its 8:30 PM lead-in McHALE'S NAVY (# 44) and 9:30 PM lead-out PEYTON PLACE (# 46) for the season.  With such a solid performance against a venerable powerhouse, renewal was never in doubt on hit-starved ABC, which had only four of the top 33 programs during 1965-66 (mid-season phenom BATMAN accounted for two of those!).

F TROOP was given a new time slot (Thursdays at 8 PM) for its second season--in color!

Which, sadly, ended up being the final season (reviewed by yours truly here).  But....why, when the show finished 39th 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, BATMAN ranked # 38 with a 33 share, while F TROOP, as noted above, ranked # 39 with a 31.3 share.  BATMAN II's mid-season rating was 19.3 (# 37) to the 18.8 (# 39) for F TROOP.  Not much of a drop shown at either point.  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 later on Thursdays.

F TROOP also improved noticeably on the ABC show it replaced from 1965-66: GIDGET ranked # 68 with a 26.8 share (third in the time period), despite receiving a lead-in from a # 5 BATMAN instead of one finishing 37th for the season.  GIDGET had replaced THE DONNA REED SHOW (# 91, 11.0 rating at mid-season) in January 1966.  Any way you look at it, F TROOP dramatically improved ABC's fortunes at 8 PM Thursdays; the show's share represented a 17% increase over the prior season. 

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 September 25, 1966) showed F TROOP in 44th place with a 17.8 rating.  By mid-season in early January, VARIETY reported the show was averaging a 30.7 share and was in the "probable" category for renewal, and as mentioned in the last paragraph, the March 1967 issue of TELEVISION showed F TROOP with a rating of 18.8 and 39th place ranking out of 91 shows through early January.  At season's end in April, the final rating was 19.2 and the share was 31.3: an 8% increase over the September rating and a 2% increase over the January rating and share.

Wild Eagle can't figure it out either

So it would appear that F TROOP took a slight 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 stood in 23rd place with a 21.4 rating/33.2 share--ABC's fifth highest rated show.  If anything, the numbers indicate that the show was building positive momentum down the stretch.  By the end of the 1966-67 season, F TROOP was # 39, and the 31.3 share was exactly the same as the 1965-66 showing.

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 welcome refocus 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 note, closing with arguably the two 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.  That show's final Nielsen number was skewed upward by a top 15 debut; it sank quickly afterward.  F TROOP was ABC's highest rated show to leave the airwaves, and the highest rated cancellation to air the full season.  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 (and only by its producers after four seasons) 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 for two seasons in a row (behind BEWITCHED), and one of only four ABC shows to make the top 40 during both the 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons (BATMAN, PEYTON PLACE and of course, BEWITCHED being the others), you're right.  And in fact, the network didn't cancel it.  So who was our true villain?  Those aforementioned cheapskates over at Warner Brothers Television.

One cheapskate in particular.....

In Jeff Kisseloff's excellent 1991 book The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961, 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 the studio 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.

Whoo! Kalmenson must have been drinking some of this!

I must address one additional factor cited by others, including Forrest Tucker himself (in the August 10, 1967 issue of the Milwaukee Journal): the Warner Brothers TV/Seven Arts merger, agreed upon in November 1966 and finalized in the summer of 1967.  While this was a factor, and Orr might have had something of an axe to grind since Kalmenson demoted him in early 1966 (Hy Averback took over as executive producer), I still tend to believe Orr's statement that the end of F TROOP was the powerful Kalmenson's call.  The newly merged WB/Seven Arts Productions didn't get out of prime time entirely, since THE F.B.I. (# 32, 31.2 share in 1966-67) continued on for its third season.  Since F TROOP's syndication availability was immediately trumpeted in the broadcasting press within days of the April 3 announcement of ABC's fall schedule, it seems likely that the ever-shortsighted Ben Kalmenson was ready to make a quick buck off the sixty-five episodes available for reruns--no matter that (say) ninety-one would be even more attractive for years to come.

Sacrebleu!  Benny's worse than the Burglar of Banff-ff-f!

Being a co-production that wasn't filmed on the Warner lot gave THE F.B.I. two advantages that F TROOP didn't have.  The end of F TROOP--last TV show filmed on the WB lot--freed up studio space and allowed that quick syndication cash infusion.  Or at least allowed Kalmenson (no fan of television at all according to Christopher Anderson's fine book Hollywood TV) a couple of excuses to kill the show.  Rather suddenly, I might add.  The February 24 Boston Globe reported that F TROOP was set to be moved, not canceled: to 8 PM on Wednesdays.

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 ABC replacement, THE FLYING NUN, has faded from screens 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 (or possibly was forced out) in 1969.  If only that had happened three years earlier....

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


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Not in front of the men, Hal...

Great post, my friend. I agree 100% that the aborted third season of F Troop was a crime against television.

I think you and my grandmother ("Nana Kaye") would have gotten along famously...F Troop was her favorite TV show, because Forrest Tucker was her favorite actor.

My mother also told me that Nana Kaye was a huge fan of Car 54, Where are You? I don't know how, in my mother's case, it skipped a generation.

Hal said...

Thanks for reading, Ivan.

Yes, it sounds like your grandmother would have been an instant friend. Or at least a Horn Section reader. :)

CAR 54 and anything from the pen of Hiken is a must-see for me also.

In looking at the most likely landing spot (Wed 7:30 PM ET) for the potential third season, I do think F TROOP could have competed effectively. Certainly better than CUSTER. Who the Hell thought a Custer TV series would be a good idea, anyway?

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Hal, very interesting analysis of why F TROOP should have been renewed! I was a fan; I always thought it was consistently amusing. I'm not sure why it never caught on in syndication like GILLIGAN'S ISLAND. (Too bad that when Tucker and Denver teamed UP, it resulted in the unfunny--and cheap--DUSTY'S TRAIL.)

Hal said...

Thanks for visiting and reading Classic!

F TROOP probably did better than you might realize in syndication; it was in a state of almost constant rerun in the markets I had available to me via satellite in the 80's (NYC, Chicago, OKC, DFW) up until Nick at Nite picked the series up in '91.

Not quite at the level GILLIGAN reached in the 70's/early 80's, true, and that's probably where the relatively low total of 65 episodes had an effect. Just one more season would have put the total close to 100 (GILLIGAN had 98) and made the show more marketable for 5 day a week programming.

Who knows how many millions Benny and Co. cost Warners over $3,000? Just a dumb, shortsighted decision IMO. No other way to describe it.

Michael said...

Very curious where your ratings data comes from. Is It mostly pulled from Broadcasting Magazine, or some other source?

Hal said...

Thanks for reading Michael. It comes from TELEVISION magazine, Volume 24, Number 8 (page 54). This issue reviewed and listed the ratings for the full 1966-67 season.

Michael said...

Ah, that's the one!

I've been on the lookout for similar ratings reports before and after the 1966-67 season, but have thus far been unsuccessful (outside of the top 30 shows).

Great blog; I found it last night and have been enjoying reading it.

Raymond said...

They're all gone now except for Larry Storch, who commented on James Hampton's passing a couple months ago. (today is 6/24/2021) Larry turned 99 this January!