40th Anniversary of Irwin Allen’s Swiss Family Robinson

Today marks the 40th anniversary of ABC’s Swiss Family Robinson, which premiered on Sunday, September 14th, 1975 in the family-friendly 7-8PM time slot. It was Irwin Allen’s penultimate TV series and ran for just 20 episodes before succumbing to low ratings brought on in part by CBS deciding to move 60 Minutes to the 7-8PM hour.

It’s a bittersweet anniversary due to recent passing of star Martin Milner, who of course is much better known for his roles on Route 66 and Adam-12. You can read my recently revised article about Swiss Family Robinson here.

Unlike most of the obscure TV shows I’ve written articles about, I can’t remember why I decided to write about Swiss Family Robinson. Nor can I recall exactly why I was under the impression that its full title was Irwin Allen’s Swiss Family Robinson. It was referred to as “Irwin Allen’s Production of Swiss Family Robinson” and that’s how the opening credits go.

To differentiate it from other TV versions I’m going to continue to refer to it as Irwin Allen’s Swiss Family Robinson.

When I wrote the article back in 2007, there was some confusion about how many episodes were aired. TV Guide listings indicate that the second episode aired on Sunday, September 21st while the episode list included in Television Drama Programming: A Comprehensive Chronicle: 1975-1980 by Larry James Gianakos states that the next episode would not air until September 28th, 1975. According to Gianakos, there were 19 episodes while TV Guide had listings for 20 episodes.

I’ve finally confirmed that there were indeed 20 episodes by checking TV listings in several newspapers. Not only was Gianakos wrong about the episode count and airdates, he also mixed up several episode titles.

I’ve also dug up some information on how the series performed in the ratings (decently at first, it turns out) as well as some additional critical reviews (one critic called it “a disgrace to television”).

While revising the article I discovered that it aired on FX in the mid-1990s. Does anyone remember watching it? I don’t know if my family had FX in 1994-1996 when I believe Swiss Family Robinson was shown on weekends. I used to watch a lot of FX but don’t recall seeing it.

3 Replies to “40th Anniversary of Irwin Allen’s Swiss Family Robinson”

  1. Repost from 2010:
    On the subject of unreleased materials of Mr. Irwin Allen, I would like to put in a kind word for a DVD release of ‘Irwin Allen’s Swiss Family Robinson’, a fondly remembered series from the seventies.

    Mr. Allen had scored at hat trick for the Alphabet in the ’60s with three hit young adult series: ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’, ‘The Time Tunnel’ and ‘Land of the Giants’ (also ‘Lost in Space’ for the Eye). As his sixties series fell to cancellations, Mr. Allen wrote, directed and produced CITY BENEATH THE SEA, a backdoor pilot for NBC that was praised but went nowhere.

    Mr. Allen then turned his attentions to feature film, directing two mammoth blockbusters, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO that made his brand golden in Hollywood.

    Based on these huge theatrical successes, coupled with his sixties series triumphs, Mr. Allen was highly coveted by the networks to ply his magic again for the tube, and he was subsequently signed up to produce a couple of backdoor pilots. ADVENTURES OF THE QUEEN was written for CBS which aired on February 14, 1975, garnering an awful February Sweep rating of 13.0HH/23%; CBS never returned calls about that series.

    Then on Tuesday April 15, 1975, in a special two-hour ‘ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week’ (pre-empting ‘Happy Days’), THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON backdoor pilot aired and got a commanding 22.5HH/37% rating in the Nielsens, crushing THE VIRGINIA HILL STORY on the ‘NBC World Premiere Movie’ (12.8HH/20%) and besting CBS’s powerhouse ‘Good Times’/’M*A*S*H’/’Hawaii Five-O’ lineup.

    About a month later at upfront, ABC announced that ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ would go to series and lead off Sunday nights. In the fall of 1975, the networks were given back an hour from prime access and could go four hours on Sunday nights as long as the first hour was devoted to family-oriented programming, which was later defined to also include sports, news/documentary, telemovies/theatricals and variety series/special programming.

    There was much anticipation for the series, and the earliest wave of ABC’s “Welcome to the Bright New World of ABC” promo bumpers heavily featured the new series, built around Mr. Milner fresh from ‘Adam-12’ and Mr. Allen, who brought you THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO.

    Then, in June 1975, Mr. Fred Silverman was recruited by ABC to jump over from CBS. Mr. Silverman, a legendary master of scheduling, knew where CBS was weak (he had put together their schedule), and he shifted ABC’s strategy for the fall of 1975, playing up ‘Happy Days’/’Welcome Back, Kotter’, ‘Baretta’/’Starsky & Hutch’ and the big theatricals coming to ABC that fall. Promos for ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ became scarce (and I seem to remember consigned mostly to Saturday kidvid), as the Alphabet turned all their promo efforts towards the series Mr. Silverman thought could strike Nielsen gold.

    Mr. Silvermans instincts were proved right, but it led to ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ preeming weaker than expected, and not really showing much growth thereafter. The only other new fall ABC program that Mr. Silverman tried to salvage was Fridays ‘Mobile One’, which swapped time periods with ‘The Barbary Coast’ in October.

    Through the fall, ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ performed respectfully, averaging a 16.1HH for the fall episodes vs. a 17.6HH for NBC’s ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ and a 8.7HH for CBS’s ‘Three for the Road’ which was cancelled.

    At midseason, CBS brought ’60 Minutes’ back from Sunday afternoons, and it doubled up on its predecessor with a 17.9HH second season average vs. 18.0HH for ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ and a 13.0HH for ‘Swiss Family Robinson’.

    In the second season, ABC (Mr. Silverman really), had lost faith in ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ and it got pre-empted for half the February Sweep, but not before airing a highly-promoted two-parter about Mr. Jean Lafitte, which I believe was pitched to spinoff-obsessed Mr. Silverman as a pirate-adventure series if it had rated well enough, which it didn’t.

    ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ got only a few more airings before the season ended and ‘Swiss Family Robinson’s’ 15.2HH season average (69th out of 97 series airing that year) didn’t make the ABC cutoff that year as it was cancelled. By the time of the May Sweep, ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ had finished its run of 21 episodes and was replaced with a shortflight series ‘The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau’ which ran into the summer season.

    All this a rather long-winded call-out to the folks at 20th-Television to round out the libraries of those who have collected the works of Mr. Irwin Allen by releasing this worthy series, which might have been a rather nice time period hit for ABC had Mr. Silverman stayed put at CBS…I cannot imagine him, ever, moving ’60 Minutes’ into primetime. I remember Miss Cher LaPiere was hugely displeased with getting a newsmagazine as a lead-in to her January 1976 midseason re-union variety show ‘The Sonny & Cher Show’ which replaced her cancelled ‘Cher’ series from the fall of 1975.

  2. Yes, I do remember watching Swiss Family Robinson on FX. It was on the schedule when FX hit the airwaves in 1994. As I Adam-12 fan I always thought I’d get around to recording the episodes, but sadly did not. It was the first time I’d seen the show since it’s original ABC broadcast.

    All I have on tape would be a FX promo for the show.

    Even if not a classic, hopefully the series will make it to DVD or streaming someday.

  3. Having lived in Toledo for most of my life, I still remember Norman Dresser’s (entertainment critic for the local paper, The Blade) very negative review for the first episode of the series, in which the headline referred to the series as “terrible”. I don’t remember much of the specifics, except that the review mentioned one occurrence in the first episode in which the late Martin Milner is attempting to teach one of the sons now to swim.

    For the record, I still remember the promos for the series, as the fall approached. They showed at least one scene from the April, 1975 movie, as I recall.

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