Monday, February 13, 2017

A Little Monkee Business

Not a member of The Monkees (Still from "Catspaw," 1967)
This piece is in response to several claims made by Marc Cushman and Susan Osborn in These Are The Voyages — TOS: Season One about the overall popularity and fan mail response to Star Trek and The Monkees (1966-68). This material was originally part of a much longer fact check about the production history of “The Alternative Factor,” but since it is largely irrelevant to the making of that episode, I have elected to publish it separately.

In both the original and the revised edition of These Are The Voyages — TOS: Season One, the authors write:
Wednesday, November 16, 1966... The “pre-fab four,” as the press was calling them, had the No. 1 album in the nation and their TV show was on its way to winning an Emmy as Best Comedy. However, as popular as the pop music sitcom was, Star Trek’s ratings were higher. And out of 90 primetime TV series, the two that received the most fan mail by far were The Monkees and Star Trek, neck and neck.
--Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, These Are The Voyages — TOS: Season One (eBook Edition, December 2013)
First things first — no one in the press was referring to The Monkees (either the band or the television series, only the latter of which I have italicized in this piece) as the “prefab four” in 1966. That was a nickname coined by Eric Idle for The Rutles (a Beatles parody group) in the 1970s; journalists did not begin applying it to The Monkees until the mid-1980s (the earliest example I have found is a July 27, 1986 article in The Washington Post).

Cushman and Osborn correctly note that The Monkees had the number one album in the United States when “The Alternative Factor” began filming. In fact, their debut album was number one for thirteen consecutive weeks, until it was surpassed by the group’s second album, More of the Monkees, which held the number one spot for an additional seventeen weeks. It’s also true that The Monkees (the television series) was on its way to winning an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, which was presented on June 4, 1967. The Monkees also won that night for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy (award to director James Frawley for the episode titled "Royal Flush"); Star Trek had five nominations, but went away empty-handed.1

Cushman and Osborn’s claim that The Monkees and Star Trek attracted the most fan mail out of all 90 primetime shows during the 1966-67 season, however, is impossible to substantiate. The three networks were competitors, and were not sharing fan mail figures with each other beyond what they leaked to the trade papers for publicity purposes. Moreover, according to a late 1967 column by Los Angeles Times entertainment critic Hal Humphrey, the three networks were not even measuring fan mail in the same way, making comparisons of their numbers into a pointless exercise:
Do the TV networks get mail from viewers? Yes, but not as much as one might guess. ABC receives approximately 30,000 pieces of mail a year, CBS averages 20,000 and NBC counts phone calls and mail together for a grand total this year of 187,000. Kathryn Cole, manager of NBC's department of information, does not have a mail and phone call breakdown.
If the CBS 20,000 mail count seems extraordinarily low, it may be due to the fact it counts only that mail addressed to the network, and not that addressed to the programs in care of CBS. At NBC and ABC that line is not so finely drawn.2
What can be verified is that Star Trek and The Monkees appear to have attracted the most fan mail of NBC shows during the 1966-67 broadcast season, which is an important distinction. According to a draft of an NBC booklet prepared in May of 1967:
Second only to The Monkees among NBC programs in the volume of fan mail it attracts, STAR TREK has been the recipient of nearly 27,000 letters of support and encouragement from one of the most loyal and articulate viewer followings currently attracted by any television series.3
If the 27,000 letter figure is to be believed [see first note], The Monkees may not have been “neck and neck” with Star Trek in terms of fan mail received during the 1966-67 broadcast season, but well ahead of it. According to a February 1967 article in Weekly Variety, The Monkees had accrued 66,024 pieces of fan mail by the end of January 1967 alone — more than double what Star Trek had reportedly brought in three months later — and had been the network’s leading show in terms of fan mail since October of 1966.4 (For those interested in the difference between the size of a dedicated fan base willing to write fan letters and the size of a show’s overall viewing audience, the title of this article is a provocative one — “If Mail Were Ratings ‘Monkees' Would Shine”).

Appearing to cast some doubt on these figures, however, is a May 6, 1967 letter from Gene Roddenberry to David Hedley (Director of Program Presentations for NBC), in which Roddenberry disputed the claim that Star Trek was still second to The Monkees in terms of fan mail:
...you can forget STAR TREK being second in fan mail, it’s now first. According to ours and NBC’s counts on the West Coast we surpassed THE MONKEES LAST week.5
The following month, this information (perhaps leaked by Roddenberry) made its way to Ted Green, a columnist for Back Stage, who wrote in the trade paper that, “Desilu's ‘Star Trek’ now is the Number One fan mail puller on NBC-TV, outdrawing ‘The Monkees.’”6

Roddenberry appears to have been mistaken about the information he received from NBC regarding Star Trek's mail pull, however. On May 16, David Hedley replied to Roddenberry's letter from earlier that month and disputed the assertion that Star Trek had pulled ahead of The Monkees in fan mail:
While STAR TREK's mail count in one of the recent weeks may have exceeded that of the Monkees, the respective totals of favorable letters for the season through April 30 are: Monkees - 172,853 and STAR TREK - 26,817. Because of the vastly different appeal of these programs, we think that the STAR TREK figure is probably more significant. However, in the interest of accuracy, we cannot bill it as our top mail puller.7
Other archival evidence also suggests that Roddenberry was mistaken. In August of 1967, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that The Monkees was still ahead of Star Trek in fan mail received:
Except for The Monkees, the greatest mail puller among TV series the past season was NBC's Star Trek. According to executive producer Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's weekly mail averages 4,000 pieces.8
Additionally, it was not until October of 1967 that Roddenberry sent the following memo to the cast and crew of Star Trek:
NBC informs us that STAR TREK has now passed THE MONKEES and is the Number One show in all the nation in Fan Mail received!
Not only this, but every report is that STAR TREK’s fan response is by far the most devoted and enthusiastic by all measurements.
Thank you for all you are doing to make this possible.9
Further complicating the issue, two months after Roddenberry’s internal memo quoted above, the Los Angeles Times again reported that NBC’s mail leader was The Monkees, followed by Star Trek:
For the past year and a half at NBC the biggest mail puller has been The Monkees. Star Trek is next, and so much of its mail is from scientists and clergymen that the NBC sales department has been able to use this fact in making its sale pitch to particular potential sponsors.10
Regardless of if and when Star Trek overtook The Monkees in the number of fan letters received, none of these sources are indicative of how many letters either program received relative to the shows on the other two networks (ABC and CBS). Cushman and Osborn's claim that the two programs received the most fan letters out of all prime time programs during the 1966-67 season is simply unverifiable.

Moreover, Cushman and Osborn’s claim that Star Trek had higher ratings than The Monkees (the latter of which they identify as a “popular” show) during the 1966-67 season is not true. In point of fact, The Monkees was never a hit in the Nielsen ratings. The half-hour show was highly profitable, but this was not because of the size of its viewing audience — it was because the program was inexpensive to produce and its merchandising was very, very lucrative:
American video's most profitable show of the current network season isn't on the Nielsen hit parade, or even near it. And it doesn't even cop it’s Monday night time period...
But the "Monkees" is easily the biggest smash — merchandising, that is — since the Daniel Boone parlay emptied tot piggybanks. For the show’s mod foursome (three Britishers and a Yank [sic—see second note], assembled via audition and then audience-tested), its been virtually instant international fame. But the big winnah [sic] is Screen Gems as producer of the teleshow, owner of the combos name, and ringmaster of all Monkeeshines [sic]...
The combo's NBC-TV series, moreover, is one of the vid semester's cheaper freshman entries, figured to hit around $45,000 or thereabouts a segment (the web pays around $75,000 a show), the result of well-pared costs all around — talent, production, script, etc...11
That said, even though The Monkees was not a Nielsen ratings hit — it did not win its time slot or place in the top thirty during either season it was on the air — the program still outperformed Star Trek, at least during the 1966-67 broadcast season. According to Nielsen NTI figures published in Television Magazine, The Monkees finished 42nd for the 1966-67 season, with a 31.2 share, while Star Trek placed 52nd with a share of 28.2.12 Although I have been unable to locate year-ending Nielsen figures for the 1967-68 broadcast season, I have been able to locate a two-week NTI report from October of 1967, which was reprinted in Daily Variety. That report has The Monkees finishing 66th (with a 28.1 share) and Star Trek finishing 68th (with a 24.8 share) — a dismal showing for both programs, though with The Monkees still slightly ahead of Star Trek.13

Image courtesy of Trek Core.

First Note: When the brochure finally went to press, the figure had been adjusted to 28,000 letters (thanks to Dave T. for confirming this). A variety of books and online sources have cited the number in the brochure as being 29,000 letters, but I have been unable to corroborate this larger figure with any primary sources.

Second Note: It should be pointed out that The Monkees' "mod foursome" was made up of three Yanks (Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz) and one Britisher (Davy Jones), not the other way around. Thanks to Neil B. for correctly noting this.

Endnotes:

1 "Emmy Winners," Daily Variety, June 5, 1967, p.14

2 Hal Humphrey, "TV Networks Get Mail From Home," Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1967, p.D23

3 Letter from David Hedley to Gene Roddenberry with attached draft of descriptive sheet for returning shows, May 1, 1967, Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection, Box 30, Folder 5

4 "If Mail Were Ratings 'Monkees' Would Shine," Weekly Variety, February 22, 1967, p.32

5 Letter from Gene Roddenberry to David Hedley, May 6, 1967, Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection, Box 30, Folder 5

6 Ted Green, "Main Street," Back Stage, June 30, 1967, p.4

7 Letter from David H. Hedley to Gene Roddenberry, May 16, 1967, Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection, Box 30, Folder 5

8 Hal Humphrey, "Star Trek's upward flight," Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1967, p.A39C

9 Memo from Gene Roddenberry to All Concerned, October 17, 1967, Roddenberry 366 Vault (document 050/366)

10 Hal Humphrey, "TV Networks Get Mail From Home," Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1967, p.D23

11 "No Biz Like 'Monkees' Biz," Weekly Variety, January 25, 1967, p.27; 45

12 Walter Spencer, "TV’s Vast Grey Belt," Television Magazine, August 1967, p.54

13 "Nat'l Nielsen Boxscore," Daily Variety, October 25, 1967, p.24

Sources:

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

These Are The Voyages: TOS, Season One (Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn, 2013)

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