Monday, February 29, 2016

Star Trek and Color Television Households

Still from 'Charlie X' (1966)
The subject of today's post comes from the pages of Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman's Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996):
In 1966, NBC, at the behest of RCA, commissioned the A.C. Nielsen Company to do a study on the popularity of color television series as opposed to all television series. The results were expected–and very unexpected.
Favorite series were popular whether or not they were viewed in color. For example, NBC's Bonanza series was a top-rated series on the overall national ratings list as well as on the color ratings list.
However, in December 1966, with Star Trek having been on the air only three months, an NBC executive called with some news. The Nielsen research indicated that Star Trek was the highest-rated color series on television. I distributed the information to the Star Trek staff. We thought it was all very interesting, nothing to write home about, and went back to work. We were wrong; we failed to see the importance of the research.
Perhaps those initial and subsequent Nielsen color series ratings contributed to giving Star Trek a second year of life. Putting aside low national ratings and lack of sponsors, perhaps a reason for renewing Star Trek, other than all the phone calls, letters, and demonstrations at NBC, was its position as the top-rated color series on the 'full color network.' NBC's parent company was RCA. Star Trek sold color television sets and made money for RCA.
- Herbert F. Solow, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996), p.305​
In the twenty years since Solow and Justman's memoir was first published, authors of both popular and academic texts have seized upon this story as an explanation why Star Trek lasted for 79 episodes (despite low national ratings). Citing the above passage from Inside Star Trek, for example, British scholar Catherine Johnson writes:
When in 1966, RCA commissioned A.C. Nielsen to study the popularity of networked colour television series, the research revealed that Star Trek was the highest-rated colour television series on the air at that time... Herbert Solow argues that this research was a factor in the network's decision to renew the series for a second season despite its relatively poor performance in the ratings.
- Catherine Johnson, Telefantasy (2005), p.84-86
I've even cited Solow's theory about Star Trek's second season renewal in an earlier post on this blog.
Still from NBC television promo (1968)
Before I go much further, I should provide some historical context. On January 1, 1967, a few weeks after Nielsen's special survey of color television households, there were about 55 million homes with television in the United States. According to estimates published in Broadcasting Magazine, about 9.5 million of those homes were watching in color:
Estimated color-TV households in the U.S. rose 82% to 9,510,000 homes as of Jan. 1, 1967, as compared to 5,220,000 homes on Jan. 1, 1966, according to NBC.
- Color sets up 82%, Broadcasting (February 13, 1967), p.58
Color television households represented a small segment of the viewing audience (about 17.3% of television households as of January 1, 1967), but their numbers were growing rapidly. By 1971, nearly half of television households were watching in color

Color television households also represented an important demographic for advertisers. In an April 20, 1966 interview, Tom Sarnoff, an NBC Vice President, told Weekly Variety, "color set owners...are the heaviest spenders and buy more quality products." Sarnoff's comments made a certain amount of sense. After all, not only did color television households have the extra cash to purchase a pricey new television, studies showed they watched more television (and, therefore, more advertisements) than households watching in black and white:
The Trendex study also found that TV usage in color TV homes is 22% greater than in black and white homes.
- Tint Advantage Still Mostly NBC's, Weekly Variety (November 16, 1966), p.26​
RCA color television advertisement featuring NBC's Star Trek (1967)
NBC had begun billing itself as the "full color network" during the 1965-66 broadcast season. Although the network didn't fully realize this promise until November 7th, 1966, it had a clear lead over CBS and ABC in both color television programming and viewership when Star Trek premiered, a lead which continued throughout the 1966-67 broadcast season:
NBC has 47% higher ratings in color TV homes than in black and white homes. These are the comparative ratings of the three networks in color TV homes and black and white homes, based on the Oct. I and II Nielsen reports:
NBC had a nighttime average of 26.4 in color TV homes and an 18.0 in black & white homes; CBS had a 19.8 average in color homes against an 18.8 in b& w homes; and ABC had a 17.8 average in color homes versus a 18.4 in black and white homes.
- Color Edge, Weekly Variety (December 21, 1966), p.26
NBC's significant edge in color television households was, pardon the expression, only logical. Its parent company, RCA, was in the business of selling consumer televisions and high-priced color broadcast equipment (including cameras), which led NBC to invest more quickly and heavily in color television than either of its competitors. RCA's ownership of NBC also meant that on-air promotional spots pushed consumers to watch NBC's line-up in color, and advertising for RCA color television sets urged consumers to watch programming on NBC (see the above ad, for example).

Since NBC had such a compelling lead among color television audiences, it begs the question – how could Star Trek have been the number one show among color television households, when it had such middling ratings overall (the series placed 52nd for the 1966-67 broadcast season)? To answer that question, I once again turned to the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Collection at UCLA, where I found the original correspondence Solow references in Inside Star Trek – a December 7, 1966 memo from Solow to Star Trek's cast and crew:
Some of you may be aware of the fact that the Nielsen Company does a special research sample of ratings in color set homes only. I do not have the specific rating on STAR TREK but have been advised that STAR TREK is the highest rated color show in its time period, i.e. beating out MY THREE SONS, BEWITCHED, DATING GAME, and the CBS THURSDAY NIGHT MOVIE. It is NBC's feeling that while other high-rated color shows, such as BOB HOPE, BONANZA, and DEAN MARTIN, score well due mainly to the star value within the show (Bob Hope and Dean Martin) or the longevity of the program (BONANZA), STAR TREK derives much of its color rating from the magnificent technical quality of the show from the basic concept, design, photography and effects. You are all to be congratulated on this fine work.
Reading this memo now, it's clear that Herbert Solow's account in Inside Star Trek: The Real Story doesn't quite match the archival record. On the one hand, Star Trek did do better in homes with color televisions than it did in homes with black and white sets. In the color television sample, Star Trek beat the network shows it aired against (most notably, BewitchedMy Three Sons, and the CBS Thursday Night Movie); in the National Nielsen ratings, Star Trek was regularly beaten by all three of these shows.

However, a victory in its timeslot (Thursday nights, 8:30-9:30) in the color television sample does not mean that Star Trek was the number one show in color television households, and there's nothing in the Solow memo to suggest that this was the case. In fact, the results of a separate Trendex report on color television viewers, released just a few weeks prior to Nielsen's study, strongly suggests that this scenario was unlikely:
The top ten regular network programs in color TV homes were tabulated by Trendex to be, in order: "I Spy," NBC; "Jackie Gleason," CBS; "Sunday Night Movies," ABC; "Saturday Night Movies," NBC; "CBS Thursday Movies"; "Girl from UNCLE," NBC; "Tuesday Night Movies," NBC; "CBS Friday Night Movies"; "Bonanza," NBC; and "I Dream of Jeannie," NBC.
- Tint Advantage Still Mostly NBC's, Weekly Variety (November 16, 1966), p.26​
As I've done in the past, it must be emphasized that A.C. Nielsen and Trendex were different companies, which approached audience measurement in different ways. However, it is unlikely that Nielsen's survey of color television households would have found Star Trek to be the top rated show, while Trendex's survey of the same audience wouldn't even find Star Trek among the top ten list of programs.

In all likelihood, Solow's memory was a bit fuzzy after the passage of almost thirty years. Although Star Trek's ratings improved when sampling color television households instead of all television households, this was largely true of all programming on NBC, and there's no evidence that Star Trek was ever the top rated show among color television households. While its ratings in color television households may have been a factor in NBC's renewal of Star Trek for a second season, I suspect they were just one of many reasons that ultimately led to the network's decision.

Thanks to TrekBBS users DroneChristopherThe Old Mixer, and CorporalCaptain for the original questions and subsequent conversation that led to the research and writing of this piece. Additional thanks goes to Neil B. and Maurice M., who graciously took the time to read and critique several earlier drafts of this post. Any errors that remain are entirely my own.

Top image courtesy of Trek Core.

Sources:

The Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection (1964-1969)

Inside Star Trek : The Real Story (Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, 1996)

Telefantasy (Catherine Johnson, 2005)

Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise (Mark Clark, Kindle Edition, April 2012)

The Color Revolution: Television In The Sixties (Television Obscurities, December 22nd, 2013)

Star Trek and American Television (Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies, 2014)

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