Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Gilligan Gunned Down by Gunsmoke

This'll take care of that varmint Gilligan.
In a small way, it was a decision that changed the course of TV history -- certainly where Baby Boomer fans are concerned. I'm talking about the spring 1967 showdown in which CBS first canceled, and then reinstated, the long-running Western series Gunsmoke, making room to do so by denying Gilligan's Island a fourth season in prime time.

After 12 seasons on TV, James Arness' Western favorite was on the decline in the ratings. Just as importantly, according to veteran Associated Press journalist Cynthia Lowry, the show's demographics were troublesome. "What apparently bothered the network," Lowry wrote in a March 1967 column, "was the fact that audience polls showed the program to be more attractive to older viewers than younger ones at a time when all three networks -- and many sponsors -- are preoccupied with reaching young families with growing children."  This type of audience research was becoming increasingly important to TV executives in the mid-1960s, and would hit a new high in the early 1970s, when CBS canceled long-running shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Red Skelton Show that had good numbers but attracted the "wrong" viewers from an advertiser's standpoint.

Lowry's column quoted a CBS spokesperson who said the 11th-hour switcheroo -- in which Gilligan and a new sitcom called Doc were poleaxed -- came about "after the surprise reaction of press and our affiliated stations" to dropping Gunsmoke. It's been rumored, though, that the change may have been the edict of network head honcho William S. Paley. Gunsmoke was said to be a favorite show in the Paley home, while the lowbrow comedy of Gilligan's Island was a bit of an embarrassment to the #1 network.

How might TV history have been different if Gunsmoke, which ultimately lasted until 1975, had been cut short eight years earlier? And what about those castaways? Would the show's enduring popularity in afternoon reruns, and the highly rated reunion shows, have come about in the same way had it lasted longer in prime time?

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