Q & A: Why Was Ensign O’Toole Cancelled; Diagnosis Unknown

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about television shows, made-for-TV movies, or miniseries they remember from years or even decades past. I try to answer each question as best I can. Every now and then I like to pull out a few e-mails to answer here at Television Obscurities for everyone to enjoy. Keep reading for today’s questions and answers.

Wondering if you write up anything about this show. I have been watching this on Get TV. It seems to be a very good show with a good cast. It only ran one season but ABC must of had so intrest in it since they ran the reruns from March to September of 1964. Was the show that bad in the ratings or did something else cause the show to run only one season.

One season wonder Ensign O’Toole starred Dean Jones as the title character, a U.S. Navy ensign assigned to the fictional USS Appleby. Jay C. Flippen, Jack Mullaney, Jack Albertson, and Harvey Lembeck co-starred. The sitcom ran for 32 episodes on NBC during the 1962-1963 season. It aired from 7-7:30PM ET on Sunday evenings, opposite Lassie on CBS and repeats of Father Knows Best on ABC.

Here are the opening credits:

Why did NBC cancel the show after a single season? I don’t know for sure but the decision to axe Ensign O’Toole likely came down to ratings. Lassie beat Ensign O’Toole in the Nielsen ratings, helped by a stronger lead-in. Also, sponsors Chesterfield and Ford apparently weren’t happy with the show airing Sundays at 7PM ET. They wanted the show to move to a later time slot, likely in the hopes of drawing an older audience rather than just children. NBC either wouldn’t or couldn’t find a new home for the show.

So, it likely came down to a combination of unhappy sponsors and unsatisfactory ratings.

As for why ABC purchased repeats of Ensign O’Toole to air in 1964, it must have been cheaper for the network to purchase the rights to a cancelled NBC show than pay for an entirely new show.

I recall a “Dr. Coffey” who solved mysteries using his scientific lab for proof. The show would have been on one of the three networks late 1950’s or very early 1960’s. It wouldn’t have been a long series at all. Can you come up with a title and air time?

I believe the show Gregory remembers is Diagnosis: Unknown. The medical drama aired on CBS from July to September 1960. Patrick O’Neal starred as Dr. Daniel Coffee, a pathologist who worked with the police to solve crimes. Chester Morris co-starred as Detective Max Ritter with Phyllis Newman as Doris Hudson, Dr. Coffey’s lab technician.

An excerpt from one episode can be viewed on YouTube:

Diagnosis: Unknown lasted just ten episodes. As far as I know, it never aired in syndication following its brief run on CBS.

Did you watch Ensign O’Toole on NBC during the 1962-1963 season? Do you remember Diagnosis: Unknown from 1960? Hit the comments with your memories and thoughts.


Griffin, John David. “Time Change Sought for ‘Ensign O’Toole’.” Albany Times-Union. Hearst Headline Service. 25 Nov. 1962: H-3.
“Hindsight 62/63.” Television Magazine. Mar. 1963: 70.

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6 Replies to “Q & A: Why Was Ensign O’Toole Cancelled; Diagnosis Unknown”

  1. “Diagnosis Unknown” appears to have been shot on videotape.

    My guess was that it was originally intended either for the 1959 Fall season or as a midseason replacement in January, 1960, but didn’t get scheduled at either time. It was likely “burned off” over the Summer of 1960.

  2. I’m amazed ENSIGN O’TOOLE had a lead-in on NBC, other than some show like MEET THE PRESS or GE COLLEGE BOWL, given that it aired Sunday at 7 PM ET BEFORE Disney. I think MCKEEVER AND THE COLONEL was the only sitcom ever aired at 6:30 PM ET, at least on NBC, during this same season. The only partial success that I can remember for NBC in that timeslot was THE BILL DANA SHOW, which lasted a whole season there, replacing ENSIGN O’TOOLE for the 1963-64 season. It then moved to the 8:30 PM Sunday timeslot, replacing GRINDL, then was dumped itself at mid-season for BRANDED. THE NEW ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN also flopped in this timeslot, even though it was better aimed to appeal to kids than ENSIGN O’TOOLE was.

  3. Better Late … :

    Diagnosis: Unknown was the 1960 summer replacement for Garry Moore’s variety show on CBS. Moore’s producer, Bob Banner, was trying to diversify from variety into other forms; he’d bought the rights to a long-running series of mystery stories by Lawrence G. Blochman that had been running in magazines for years.
    The series’s working title was Diagnosis: Homicide, but CBS panicked and made the change before the summer run.
    As noted, D:U was produced on videotape in New York; CBS was looking for ways to do drama series more cheaply than on film.
    During that summer, Diagnosis: Unknown received a major publicity push for a summer show; the reviews were quite good, and CBS seemed to have some hopes that they might bring it back if the ratings were successful enough – indeed, there were reports at the time that D:U was earmarked for a midseason return, but that didn’t happen (more’s the pity).

    1. This idea of CBS switching its dramatic shows to videotape also appeared in the decision it forced on Rod Serling to produce THE TWILIGHT ZONE on videotape late in 1960. 6 episodes were taped at CBS TV City rather than filmed at MGM, but they were originally transferred to 16 mm film after being taped. I remember these episodes looking the same as any other TZ episodes when I was watching TZ on a local indie station in the late 1970s. Sometime in the 1980s though, videotape became the preferred method of program transmission & broadcasting, so these shows were seen on tape for the first time then. I remember “The Whole Truth” being the first taped TZ episode that I saw on tape instead of film transfer, and I loved the look when compared to 16 mm film. Serling, and a good number of TZ fans, don’t like these taped episodes due to their technical limitations (such as no outdoor location shooting), but I’ll always watch these when they come up on Me-TV now, and I watched them all on DVD also. I love how different they look from the rest of the episodes, and they make me feel as though I’m watching a live play in the 1960s rather than a regular filmed rerun.

  4. The Trade Papers (Variety, Broadcasting,etc) were taking note in spring 64 of the former NBC series that ABC picked up as replacement material. As noted here, ENSIGN OTOOLE was one. I’ll have to look up the other, which might have been EMPIRE reruns. And as cited here, costs were low for ABC of course. Variety also noted that OTOOLE ratings were “so good” on the ABC re-run that the network was considering ordering more and new installments.
    Wish that had been the case. ENSIGN OTOOLE was a nicely produced series, had a good cast.

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