Star Trek is one of the most famous TV shows of all time. Most critics weren’t impressed but millions of fans watched every week. Did a fan campaign save the show from cancellation? Did NBC take demographics into consideration when it decided to cancel Star Trek in 1969? Learn more in this look at Star Trek.
In The Beginning
Perhaps the first mention of Star Trek in the media took place on November 25th, 1964 when Hedda Hopper noted in her “Looking at Hollywood” column that Susan Oliver had been painted green for a scene in the pilot to Star Trek, co-starring Jeff Hunter . TV Guide reported in its December 12th, 1964 edition that Desilu was working on an hour-long, science-fiction series called Star Trek, starring Jeffrey Hunter .
According to The New York Times in late December 1964, Star Trek was one of 76 pilots currently in production that would be considered for the 1965-1966 season. NBC alone was working on 24 pilots, including Star Trek, The Mayor, I Spy, Guilty or Not Guilty and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies . NBC ultimately rejected the pilot to Star Trek but then took the unusual step of ordering a second pilot.
TV Guide reported in late May 1965 that the network had replaced Jeffrey Hunter with William Shatner and was considering using it as a mid-season replacement or a fall entry in the 1966-1967 season . When an early version of NBC’s 1966-1967 schedule was released in late February 1966, Star Trek had been given the 10-11PM time slot on Fridays .
The final schedule, however, placed Star Trek on Thursdays from 8:30-9:30PM and gave the series a September 15th premiere date.
The Voyage Begins
At the start of August, NBC announced it would preview three of its new series the week before the 1966-1967 season officially began. Sneak preview episodes of Star Trek, The Hero and Tarzan would be broadcast on Thursday, September 8th . The debut aired opposite the premiere of The Tammy Grimes Show and a repeat of Bewitched on ABC and a repeat of My Three Sons and the first half-hour of The CBS Thursday Night Movie (which was also a repeat).
The preview of Star Trek easily won its time slot with a 19.8/40.6 Trendex 26-city rating . The following week, however, against all new programming, Star Trek fell to second place with a 15.7/29.4 Trendex rating . Only the poor performance of The Tammy Grimes Show, which hurt ABC’s average during the 8:30-9:30PM hour, kept Star Trek from ranking third. The third episode drew a 15.6/29.8 Trendex rating, again ranking second .
Nationally, the September 15th and 22nd episodes of Star Trek (broadcast during the two-week period between September 11th and September 25th, the first ratings period of the new season) averaged an 18.7/31 Nielsen rating and ranked 33rd out of 94 programs [10, 11]. The next two episodes averaged a 17.4 Nielsen rating and fell to 51st . Still, Star Trek was doing better than the vast majority of new fall series on the three networks; only nine new series ranked above it.
What The Critics Had To Say
In their reviews of Star Trek, television critics were rather doubtful about the long-term prospects of the series. A nationwide survey of 24 critics conducted by Television Magazine found only five considered Star Trek “good,” while eight found it “bad” and eleven were “indifferent” . One of the best reviews came from Harry Harris of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who called the premiere episode a “suspenseful, puzzling and ultra-imaginative yarn” .
Other positive reviews came from The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Terrence O’Flaherty, who noted that the “opening yarn was a breath-catcher” and Bill Irvin of Chicago’s American, who wrote “I LIKE THIS ONE” . Lawrence Laurent of The Washington Post wrote that “the plots may be space opera but the show has been produced with care and lots of money” .
Other critics were less impressed. Percy Shain of The Boston Globe felt that the series was “too clumsily conceived and poorly developed to rate as an A-1 effort,” and Bob Williams of The New York Post suggested that “one may need something of a pointed head to get involved” . The Houston Chronicle‘s Ann Hodges called the premiere a “disappointingly bizarre hour” .
According to Jack Gould of The New York Times, “‘Star Trek’ makes clear that life in space will probably be more traumatic than on earth. […] The accent was less on the super-duper gadgetry usually associated with travel in the heavens than on astronautical soap opera that suffers from interminable flight drag. It was TV’s first psychodrama in orbit” .
One of the worst reviews came from Mary Ann Lee, who wrote in The Memphis Press-Scimitar that Star Trek was “one of the biggest disappointments of the season. Producer Gene Roddenberry had promised a show that would be science fact, not bizarre fiction” .
Star Trek Renewed For A Second Year
By November, Star Trek was performing well enough to warrant full-season order. The series was one of only nine new programs ranking above the 50th position in the Nielsen ratings (others included Tarzan, A Family Affair and Iron Horse) . Still, increased competition from ABC — which had shifted Bewitched to 8:30PM and Love on a Rooftop to 9PM — had impacted Star Trek‘s ratings: the January 12th, 1967 episode ranked third in its timeslot with a 13.2/23.9 Trendex rating .
Nonetheless, NBC renewed Star Trek for a second season in March 1967, tentatively placing it in the 7:30-8:30PM hour on Tuesdays . Instead, Star Trek was shifted to Fridays from 8:30-9:30PM when the final NBC schedule was released . For the 1966-1967 season as a whole, Star Trek placed 52nd, and Television Magazine noted that it and Mission: Impossible were “examples of marginal shows that got tapped for a second season” .
Star Trek‘s second season premiere on Friday, September 15th, 1967 drew a 22.5 Trendex share, easily topping ABC’s Hondo but ranking a poor second to Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and the first half-hour of The CBS Friday Night Movie on CBS, which averaged a 47 share from 8:30-9:30PM . Nationally, the premiere ranked in the bottom 20 for the week . Star Trek was off to a less than stellar sophomore season.
In October, as NBC planned its mid-season changes, reports surfaced that Star Trek would move to Mondays to replace The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was facing cancellation . Instead, it stayed put on Fridays.
Star Trek Cancelled?
It was at about this point that rumors began circulating that Star Trek was in danger of being cancelled. In a November 1st column, The Hartford Courant reassured fans of the series that Star Trek had not been cancelled and in fact would be filming an additional twenty-six episodes (the series produced 26 episodes during the 1967-1968 season; likely this report was referring to the fact that the series had been picked up for the remainder of the season and fans would be getting a full season’s worth of episodes) .
The rumors returned in full force in January 1968. The Hartford Courant ran a headline exclaiming “‘Star Trek’ Doomed, Renewal Is Unlikely,” reporting the cast had “been warned the show probably won’t be renewed” . The paper printed a retraction the following month and quoted Leonard Nimoy: “We’ve gotten no word yet one way or the other. And at this point we seem to be in a better position than we were a year ago” .
NBC released its 1968-1969 schedule in February 1968 and Star Trek was on it. According to The New York Times, the series was “returning to the schedule after N.B.C. received thousands of letters protesting its possible cancellation” . The move to Monday evening that had been suggested in October had been implemented and Star Trek would face The Mod Squad on ABC and Gunsmoke on CBS.
The rumors that Star Trek would be cancelled surprised NBC officials, who noted “that was never our intention” . The network received some 114,667 letters between December 1967 and March 1968, including 52,151 in February 1968 alone . Broadcasting reported that letters were sent by “two governors, several mayors and corporation executives, pleading for its return” .
The overwhelming response from fans led NBC to include the following notice at the end of the March 1st episode (“The Omega Glory”):
“And now an announcement of interest to all viewers of Star Trek. We are pleased to tell you that Star Trek will continue to be seen on NBC Television. We know you will be looking forward to seeing the weekly adventure in space on Star Trek.” 
The announcement was repeated at the end of the following week’s episode (“The Ultimate Computer”). It is questionable whether NBC had ever considered cancelling Star Trek and, in turn, whether the fan campaign had saved the series. Obviously, NBC took note of the thousands of letters and shifting Star Trek to Mondays did give the series a better chance of increasing its ratings.
The Third (and Final) Season
In mid-March, NBC announced Star Trek would not be moving to Mondays after all and would instead air from 10-11PM on Fridays . Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which had been given that time slot, would stay in its popular Monday period. Star Trek would now face Judd for the Defense on ABC and the second hour of The CBS Friday Night Movie.
Although the third season premiere won its time slot in New York City (it may have fared worse nationally), the following week it was a poor second to The CBS Friday Night Movie in the Trendex ratings with a 22.1 share (Judd for the Defense drew a 20.2 share, The CBS Friday Night Movie a 50.2 share) [38, 39].
One reason for Star Trek‘s poor performance — aside from the dismal time slot — was the number of affiliates it was seen on. NBC had 210 affiliates in September 1968 and only 181 of those were showing Star Trek (by comparison, 222 stations, both NBC affiliates and others, showed Bonanza) . Only five NBC programs were seen on fewer affiliates, including Adam-12 and NBC White Paper.
Star Trek was cancelled in February 1969 when NBC released its 1969-1970 schedule . This time, no amount of letter-writing would change NBC’s mind . Paramount Television announced in early March that it would put the series into domestic syndication following the conclusion of the third and final season .
NBC placed Star Trek on hiatus in mid-April, replacing it with The Saint; the series returned on Tuesday, June 3rd with its final first-run broadcast, taking over for The Jerry Lewis Show. Repeats were shown through September 2nd, 1969.
What About Demographics?
For decades, fans have suggested NBC cancelled Star Trek just before the TV networks began taking demographic into consideration when determining the success or failure of shows. If demographics had been taken into consideration, some believe, there’s no way NBC would’ve dropped Star Trek. However, demographics were a part of the decision making process during the mid-1960s.
In February 1967, as Star Trek was winding down its first season, CBS made the shocking decision to cancel its long-running western Gunsmoke, despite the fact that the series had a 21.7/35 Nielsen rating . CBS was disappointed that twice as many viewers over the age of 50 were watching Gunsmoke compared to viewers in the 18-to-34 demographic. CBS eventually reversed its decision, but the precedent had been set. At the time, an NBC spokesman noted that the network was focusing on general rating trends when canceling programs .
A year later, however, Broadcasting reported that NBC’s upcoming 1968-1969 schedule “represents the fruition of a five-year process in building shows with youth appeal . The schedule “would emphasize an attraction to the young influentials,” or the “articulate, upper-income families from the more heavily populated areas of the country” . At the same time, officials noted that the network wasn’t forgetting other age groups: “Our programming is aimed for balance, diversity, with strong leaders, such as Bonanza and the Dean Martin Show, which appeal to all age groups” .
Star Trek was renewed for the 1968-1969 season — perhaps due in part to a letter writing campaign — but saw a drop in its per minute commercial price, from $39,000 to $36,000 . At the end of the 1968-1969 season, Star Trek‘s last, NBC trumpeted its ratings success in a variety of categories, including the 18-to-49 demographic . If Star Trek had been a demographic success, why would it have been cancelled?
In reality, Star Trek‘s young adult audience wasn’t any larger than the ABC and CBS programs it competed with. According to Television Magazine, the four episodes broadcast between October 27th and November 17th, 1966 averaged 8,630,000 viewers in the 18-to-49 age group, making up 43% of the show’s total audience . By comparison, during the same period ABC’s Bewitched (which aired opposite Star Trek from 9:30-10PM) averaged 10,210,000 young adult viewers or 37% of the total audience.
As for CBS, My Three Sons (aired from 8:30-9PM) averaged 8,580,000 young adult viewers (the series was pre-empted on October 27th) or 36% of the program’s total audience. Thus, while Star Trek had a larger percentage of viewers in the young adult demographic, two of the programs it competed with had more viewers overall (and Bewitched had more young adult viewers as well). This was at the start of the show’s run; ratings fell every season.
Star Trek Reaches New Heights
While never a success on network television, Star Trek did become very popular in local syndication. During the early 1970s, Star Trek fans began to hold conventions in honor of Star Trek, inviting members of the cast and crew to give talks, screening episodes, holding contests and selling Star Trek collectibles. The television industry took notice and in March 1973 an animated spin-off of Star Trek was announced . Broadcast by NBC, the series premiered on Saturday, September 8th, 1973 and ran until August 30th, 1975. A total of 22 episodes were produced, spread across two seasons filled with plenty of repeats.
A live-action feature film reuniting the cast was rumored to be in the works in late 1975 and early 1976 . An “official” announcement regarding a film version was made in August of 1976 . However, in June of 1977, Star Trek was said to be returning to television:
“The ‘Star Trek’ television series will return to airwaves next spring as part of a television service being established by Paramount Pictures. Gene Roddenberry, who created the original series for NBC in the 1960’s, will be executive producer. The series has never been off the air and is currently seen in reruns on 137 stations in this country.” 
The television series never materialized. Instead, on March 28th, 1978, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was announced . After years of trying, Star Trek was finally making the move to the big screen. The film was released on December 7th, 1979, ushering in a new era for Star Trek franchise.
2 Walt Anderson. “TV Teletype: Hollywood.” TV Guide. 12 Dec. 1964: 28.
3 Adams, Val. “76 Pilot Films Contend for TV Places.” New York Times. 23 Dec. 1964: 53.
4 Hickey, Neil. “TV Teletype: New York.” TV Guide. 29 May 1965: 36.
5 “Here’s how the network programs shape up for next fall.” Broadcasting. 28 Feb. 1966: 24.
6 Adams, Val. “Holbrook Puts Twain to TV Test.” New York Times. 7 Aug. 1966: 101.
7 “The numbers game, part one.” Broadcasting. 19 Sep. 1966: 58-60.
9 “The latest form sheet.” Broadcasting. 26 Sep. 1966: 66-69.
10 Gowran, Clay. “Nielsen Ratings Are Dim on New Shows.” Chicago Tribune. 11 Oct. 1966: B10.
11 Gould, Jack. “How Does Your Favorite Rate? Maybe Higher Than You Think.” New York Times. 16 Oct. 1966: 129.
12 Gowran, Clay. “Nielsen Shows New Series Still Slipping.” Chicago Tribune. 25 Oct. 1966: B7.
13 “Consensus.” Television Magazine. November 1966: 52-55; 64-68.
14 “Critics’ views of hits, misses.” Broadcasting. 19 Sep. 1966: 58-64; 91.
19 Gould, Jack. “TV: Spies, Space and the Stagestruck.” New York Times. 16 Sep. 1966: 56.
20 “Consensus.” Television Magazine.
21 “Two more shows axed.” Broadcasting. 14 Nov. 1966: 72.
22 “Second season loses to movies.” Broadcasting. 23 Jan. 1967: 60-62.
23 “NBC fills final hole for 1967-68.” Broadcasting. 6 Mar. 1967: 52.
24 Gent, George. “Alex Segal to Produce 3 Danny Thomas TV Shows.” New York Times. 15 Mar. 1967: 9.5
25 “TV’s Vast Grey Belt.” Television Magazine. August 1967: 54-55; 81.
26 “Few of TV’s virgin shows look like hits.” Broadcasting. 25 Sep. 1967: 70-71.
27 “New shows get no brass rings.” Broadcasting. 2 Oct. 1967: 60.
28 “‘Juggling Fever’ Hits TV Network Shows.” Hartford Courant. 27 Oct. 1967: 1A.
29 Beck, Marilyn. “That’s Showbiz: Will Dorothy Malone Leave ‘Peyton Place’?” Hartford Courant. 1 Nov. 1967: 46.
30 Beck, Marilyn. “That’s Showbiz: ‘Star Trek’ Doomed, Renewal Is Unlikely.” Hartford Courant. 11 Jan. 1968: 22A.
31 Beck, Marilyn. “That’s Showbiz: ‘Trek’ Wasn’t Axed, Says Leonard Nimoy.” Hartford Courant. 15 Feb. 1968: 25.
32 Gent, George. “N.B.C. Schedules Changes in Fall.” New York Times. 21 Feb. 1968: 95.
33 “NBC-TV aims at the young.” Broadcasting. 4 Mar. 1968: 28.
34 “Star Trekkers Are Restored.” Hartford Courant. 17 Mar. 1968: 12H.
35 “NBC-TV aims at the young.”
36 A press release including the announcement was issued by NBC on March 4th, 1968 and was reprinted in The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry (1st Edition, Pages 394-395).
37 “‘Laugh-In’ staying put.” Broadcasting. 18 Mar. 1968: 9.
38 “First showdown at the ratings corral.” Broadcasting. 30 Sep. 1968: 32-33.
39 “NBC takes 6 of 7 in NTI rankings.” Broadcasting. 7 Oct. 1968: 58-60.
40 “Missing links in the TV chains.” Broadcasting. 13 Jan. 1969: 48-52.
41 Gent, George. “N.B.C. Replacing 7 Shows in Fall.” New York Times. 18 Feb. 1969: 82.
42 In a March 26th, 1969 article in The Chicago Tribuen, Clay Gowran noted that fans were “bombarding NBC and television columnists with pleading SOS letters. But it looks like the network, which relented a year ago and gave Star Trek a lease on life, won’t this time around.” (“TV Today: NBC Special to Bring Broadway to Home Screen.” Page B27).
43 “Program notes.” Broadcasting. 10 Mar. 1969: 66D.
44 “CBS reshuffle: emphasis on youth.” Broadcasting. 27 Feb. 1967: 25-26.
46 “NBC-TV aims at the young.”
49 “Fall line-ups go on the street.” Broadasting. 4 Mar. 1968: 23-28.
50 In a two-page advertisement in the March 31st, 1969 edition of Broadcasting, NBC proclaimed that “Just for the record, here’s the record” and showed a chart containing the overall season’s rating, the number of viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, plus families with annual income over $10,000 and families with college-educated heads of household. NBC topped all four, with a 20.3 rating and 10,300,000 viewers between in the 18-49 bracket (Pages 15-16).
51 All numbers from “What young adults are viewing this year.” Television Magazine. January 167: 52-53.
52 Krebs, Albin. “‘Star Trek’ Returning to N.B.C. As a Saturday Morning Cartoon.” New York Times. 23 Mar. 1973: 75.
53 For example, a “Q & A” segment found in the May 25th, 1975 edition of The Chicago Tribune Magazine responded to a question about new episodes of Star Trek by writing that “you may catch the crew of the Enterprise at your local moviehouse later this year. Paramount hopes to make a feature film with the original cast and add a sprinkling of major Hollywood names in cameo roles” (Page 4).
54 The Chicago Tribune‘s Gary Deeb reported on August 18th, 1976 that “Paramount Pictures, after several false starts, finally has given the official go-ahead to produce a multimillion-dollar sequel to ‘Star Trek,’ the popular science-fiction television series that ran for three seasons on NBC in the late ’60s.” Negotiations between Paramount and Leonard Nimoy were reported to have been holding up production (Page C10).
55 From an AP snippet in The New York Times on June 18th, 1977 (Page 12).
56 Krebs, Albin. “Notes on People.” New York Times. 29 Mar. 1978: C2.
Originally Published September 1st, 2006
Last Updated April 26th, 2018