"Murder Was the Case: How NBC Killed 'Star Trek.'"
Much has been written over the last fifty or so years about Star Trek, the show that died in the ratings, but bounced back in syndication, becoming a cultural phenomenon. While it’s true that Trek bounced back, there’s a truth that needs to be made known; NBC murdered Star Trek. The network went out of its way to make sure the show failed and as Marc Cushman notes in his magnificently researched and written, These Are the Voyages trilogy about the making of Star Trek, Trek’s ratings were much better than people were led to believe, and NBC made several maneuvers to rid itself of the show, largely because producer Gene Roddenberry was a pain in the ass.
As longtime Trek fans know. Lucille Ball’s Desilu Studio produced Star Trek and Lucy gave Star Trek her blessing, taking the chance on the show. Despite the myths Gene Roddenberry would perpetuate later on, NBC saw Star Trek as a show with potential. They did not think it was too cerebral and the network actually gave Roddenberry an unheard of second pilot when his first “The Cage” failed.
There’s no question the show faced adversity and some of the network headaches. However, as Cushing details, Roddenberry brought some of these headaches on himself. Cushing isn’t the only one documenting them. Herbert Solow and Robert Justman’s Inside Star Trek mention Roddenberry’s penchant for getting into trouble with higher-ups, something which made it easy for Star Trek to get the cold shoulder and miss opportunities that might have saved it.
Conventional wisdom has been Star Trek fared poorly in the network ratings but the reality is much different. Although Star Trek wasn’t a breakout hit, its ratings were average to above-average and it had other things going for it such as its audience’s demographics and merchandise sales. However, as Marc Cushing makes clear, NBC did nothing to help the show and a review of its practices suggests it went out of its way to avoid helping the show, resulting in its cancellation.
NBC moved Star Trek from its original season one slot on Thursday nights at 7:30 to Friday night at 8:30 during season two. Season three’s 10:00 “death slot” on Friday nights was no sign of NBC’s faith in the show. The show received little promotion, with the only significant promotion being how Star Trek was a good show to sell color televisions, thanks to its striking visuals for the time (yes, in hindsight they look bad but they were considered cutting-edge for the time).
Superfan Bjo Trimble (who was heavily involved with the fan campaign to save Star Trek) recalls, “Gene knew the ratings were good. But NBC was out to get Gene. He was considered a little scattered. They were a little scared of him because kept trying to push for shows, like the Enterprise finding God, and he wanted more sex, and they didn’t want those kind of things” (Cushman 653). Star Trek was a show that sometimes pushed the envelope with its themes, but more important to NBC networks, Roddenberry’s ever-revealing outfits on its female guest stars proved troublesome. Roddenberry was a man who did not seem to know when to pick his battles, instead opting for all-out warfare on the network airing his show.
Cushman’s three-volume series These Are the Voyages detail the struggles Star Trek had with NBC. There is no question Roddenberry’s not-so-subtle jibes at NBC alienated network executives but that doesn’t mean the show was a low-ratings dud with no chance of success. The evidence Cushman presents strongly suggests NBC made a judgment call that Star Trek wasn’t worth keeping because Gene Roddenberry was troublesome. According to Cushman (who backs up his statements with evidence showing Star Trek performed much better in the rating than claimed):
Even with A.C. Nielsen’s particular system of nose-counting, which downgraded Star Trek’s numbers from the reports generated by other ratings surveyors, and NBC’s tendency to underreport the numbers provided by A.C. Nielsen, the series’ true ratings would have warranted renewal for any series without Star Trek’s accompanying baggage-its costs and its thorn-in-the side creator. This was especially the case given the desirable demographic of a younger, and therefore more desirable audience base (655).
Despite the good ratings, NBC cut its losses. With Star Trek being an expensive show to produce and Roddenberry giving the network too much grief, they allowed the program to wither, cutting its budget more each year, and putting it in timeslots that were sure to alienate its demographic.
In the end, things turned out well for the franchise and Paramount made a fortune off the series but there’s no denying NBC made sure Star Trek didn’t have a chance following its first season. After 50 years of myths, it’s time for the truth on what actually happened behind the scenes.
Cushman, Marc. These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season Three. Jacobs Brown Press; 1st ed., 2015.
Cushman, Marc. These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season One. Jacobs Brown Press; Revised Edition, 2013.
Cushman, Marc. These Are the Voyages: TOS: Season Two. Marc Cushman, 2014.
Solow, Herbert and Robert H. Justman. Inside Star Trek: The Real Story. Pocket Books, 1996.