This hour-long adventure series ran for just 11 episodes on NBC during the 1974-1975 season. Produced by Jack Webb’s Mark VIII Limited, it was cancelled after just four episodes had aired.
Going into the 1973-1974 season, Jack Webb’s television universe was in great shape. His production company, Mark VII Limited, would have four shows on the air, all on NBC and all produced in association with Universal : Adam-12 (entering its sixth season), Emergency! (entering its third season), Hec Ramsey (entering its second season as part of The NBC Mystery Movie) and Chase (a new series).
Fast forward to the spring of 1974, when the networks were busy developing their schedules for the 1974-1975 season. Mark VII Limited’s television output was halved, with both Hec Ramsey and Chase cancelled. But it had five pilots in contention for the 1974-1975 season, four for NBC (Fraud, The Black Pearl, Vector and Park Ranger) and one for ABC (Mobile Two) .
Only one of the pilots — Park Ranger — would be picked up for the 1974-1975 season and it would go through several name changes and switch from a half-hour series to an hour-long series before it hit the air. Broadcasting listed it as a half-hour adventure series about the United States Forest Service in March 1974 . In April, The New York Times referred to it as The Rangers, an hour-long series that would “deal with the preservation of the environment” .
The name of the series was changed once more to Sierra, reflecting its setting at the fictional Sierra National Park (it would actually be filmed at Yosemite National Park). The characters would be park rangers with the United States National Park Service rather than the Forest Service. There were also some changes made to the cast after the pilot was filmed. The series would star James G. Richardson and Ernest Thompson as Ranger Tim Cassidy and Ranger Matt Harper, respectively. The two worked for Chief Ranger Jack Moore, played by Jack Hogan. Rounding out the cast were Susan Foster and Michael Warren as Ranger Julie Beck and Ranger P.J. Lewis.
Copyright © TV Guide, 1974 
According to Richardson, the series would downplay the role of park rangers in policing national parks, because “the Park Service is very sensitive about its law enforcement job” . Shortly before the series premiered, Broadcasting reported that the Sierra Club had accused MCA, Inc. (the parent company of Universal Television) of “seeking to develop Yosemite at the expense of its natural preservation.” Among the charges were painting rocks and using the Park Service’s rescue helicopter during production of Sierra .
Yosemite Superintendent Leslie Arnberger explained that “some rocks had been coated with a water-based paint to make them stand out better on film but there was a guarantee it would be removed. He also said that the use of the helicopter was with the strict understanding that it would be released immediately in an emergency.” More broadly, the Sierra Club claimed that MCA was trying to alter the way hotel and concession facilities were operated; a subsidiary of MCA was in charge of concessions at Yosemite .
NBC gave Sierra the Thursday 8-9PM time slot, where it would compete with returning Top Ten hit The Waltons on CBS and a pair of sitcoms on ABC, returning The Odd Couple and new series Paper Moon. The series premiered on September 12th with an episode in which Rangers Cassidy and Harper staged a daring rescue of a couple stranded while mountain climbing, dealt with a number of squabbling tourists, and handled a bear named Cruncher.
Critics, while mostly appreciative of the majestic setting, were not otherwise impressed. In his review, John J. O’Connor of The New York Times compared the series to The Mod Squad or The Rookies, only set outside. Sierra, he wrote, “combines spectacular scenery with some of the dumbest storylines to clutter prime-time TV” .
“The scenery is breathtaking,” wrote Jay Sharbutt of the Associated Press, “but the generally laggard script may cause you to exhale and change channels before the rescue commences. The show could be a passable 30 minutes, but it seems too long at an hour” . The Chicago Tribune‘s Gary Deeb was even more critical: “Jack Webb, whose brain has been stuck in neutral for the past 25 years, brings us another in his unending series of cartoon shows without the animation” .
One positive review came from Cecil Smith of The Los Angeles Times, who like other critics noted the fact that Sierra was similar to Jack Webb’s earlier shows, only to argue “it seems to me to work better here. Maybe it’s the scenery, which is glorious–the show is shot entirely in Yosemite” .
The negative reviews translated into disastrous ratings. The premiere ranked 50th for the week out of 56 programs . In its September 30th issue, published shortly after the third episode of of the series aired, Broadcasting reported that on the basis of the ratings for its first two episodes, Sierra was already in danger of being cancelled . Just over a week later, on October 8th, NBC officially pulled the plug, making Sierra the first casualty of the 1974-1975 season .
Episodes of the series often saw the rangers heading into the park to rescue someone. In one episode, they had to rescue a pair of swimmers caught in rapids and a blind child lost in the woods. In another, the rangers tracked a bear, rescued a diver trapped underwater and helped a camper stuck in his sleeping bag. Other episodes involved the rangers fighting a fire high atop a redwood tree; leading campers out of a dangerous forest fire; babysitting the young son of a fellow ranger; saving two teenagers pushed into attempting a record-breaking climb; and searching for Chief Ranger Moore who goes missing while fishing.
The October 10th episode was pre-empted for a documentary on a deadly tornado that struck Xenia, Ohio in April 1973. The following week the series was pre-empted again for baseball. The episode that was supposed to air on October 10th finally aired on October 24th. It was a crossover with Emergency! in which paramedics John Gage (played by Randolph Mantooth) and Roy DeSoto (played by Kevin Tighe) traveled to Sierra to learn about mountain rescue techniques.
NBC would keep Sierra on its schedule through mid-December, allowing all 11 episodes to air. The final episode was broadcast on December 12th. It was replaced the following week by The Mac Davis Show. A few weeks later, on Sunday, December 24th from 8:30-10PM NBC broadcast The Rangers, the pilot to Sierra. In it, Colby Chester played Ranger Matt Harper and Laurette Spang played Ranger Julie Beck. The Rangers was repeated on Monday, July 14th, 1975.
The theme song to the series was titled “Sierra” and was performed by Denny Brooks with lyrics by John Denver and music by Lee Holdrige. Included in the closing credits was an acknowledgement of the assistance of Secretary of the Interior Rogers C.B. Morton, director of the National Park Service Ronald H. Walker and “the dedicated men and women of the National Park Service.”
3 Brown, Les. “TV Programing for Fall Cuts Down on Violence.” New York Times. 20 Apr. 1974: 1.
4 Shull, Richard. “There’s a New Webb Show.” Lakeland Ledger [Lakeland, FL]. TV Insert. 25 Aug. 1974: 14.
5 “Sierra Club at odds with MCA.” Broadcasting. 9 Sep. 1974: 54.
7 O’Connor, John J. “TV: ‘Sierra,’ ‘Paper Moon,’ ‘Harry O,’ ‘Movin’ On’.” New York Times. 12 Sep. 1974: 77.
8 Sharbutt, Jay. “Premiere orgy continues.” Geneva Times [Geneva, NY]. Associated Press. 12 Sep. 1974: 14.
9 “Critical comment, cont.” Broadcasting. 23 Sep. 1974: 20.
11 “Premiere Week Ratings Show ‘Rhoda’ on Top, ‘New Land’ Last.” Observer-Dispatch [Utica, NY]. Associated Press. 19 Sep. 1974: 27.
12 “Trouble enough to go around as networks assess results of first two rating weeks.” Broadcasting. 30 Sep. 1974: 18.
13 “NBC-TV To Cancel New Thursday Show.” Hartford Courant. Associated Press. 10 Oct. 1974: 28.
Originally Published April 12th, 2014
Last Updated April 12th, 2014