The saga of network television and the people that make the programming decisions can be a perilous one at times. Particularly when you decide to put a long running show out to pasture. “Gunsmoke” starring James Arness was a tried and true success on CBS, first on radio (from 1952-1961) and then on television starting in 1955. In those 12 seasons, the western enjoyed great success and was really popular among viewers. But then, the bean counters at CBS looked at the ratings, and made a rather surprising decision: to cancel the show! Look at this article from February 1967 in The New York Times.
You will note that “Gilligan’s Island” got renewed at this point. Here is where the story gets interesting. CBS reconsidered that move, and in March they reversed that decision. A network changing their minds was not very common. Once a decision was made, that was it. However, since the beginnign of TV that hasn’t been a concrete rule. In this article on TV Obscurities, several campaigns saved shows before, but they were few and far between. As a matter of fact, another one was going on at the exact same time. NBC was mulling over the fate of “Star Trek” as well, but thanks to viewers inundating the network with a deluge of fan mail, that show was renewed. Much the case here as well.
In addition to that, a Kansas broadcast owner, Thad Sandstrom, harnessed the energy of fan backlash in that state (which is where the mythical Dodge City of Gunsmoke is), that the House of Representatives even urged CBS to think again about what they did. Read all about this strange development in this March 20th, 1967 article in Broadcasting magazine.
But wait! It gets even better! Sherwood Schwartz, creator of “Gilligan’s Island”, has told a slightly different tale about how the “Gunsmoke” was renewed. The following clip is taken from the E! True Hollywood Story of “Gilligan’s Island,” produced in 2000.
I find it amazing that nobody working on the fall schedule had any idea what the President of the network they were working for actually in fact liked! That to me is NEED TO KNOW information! I definitely, wholeheartedly, 100% would not want to have been on the receiving end of what happened when he got back from his vacation.
To add one more piece of perspective on this, a few days later, Milburn Stone, who played Doc on “Gunsmoke,” talked about what it was like when the show wrapped filming of its 12th season. Then a very low key “wrap party” happened. I couldn’t imagine being in that precarious scenario of suddenly having to admit it was all over so suddenly.
In summary, it is so amazing to me that this situation even happened in the first place. It would have been just another footnote in history that “Gilligan’s Island” ended its run after three seasons, than to be renewed then be cancelled in spectacular fashion. At least that’s what I call it anyway.