Who Killed Battlestar Galactica?

Who Killed The Battlestar? The following article was first published in the now-defunct publication Fantastic Films (issue #29, June 1982). At the time, the author, William J. Adams, had in the past year completed a study for the Journal of Communication which had looked into the questionable cancellations of several TV shows in seasons past, among them Battlestar Galactica 1978-79.

It’s been over three years since the Galactica was shot down, two since its shadow was resurrected and another since the shadow was also buried. Yet, Battlestar lives on, one of those rare shows that refuses to die gracefully. It’s happened before. CBS cancelled the Twilight Zone three times. Twenty years later it’s still running, and over at NBC the very mention of Star Trek can send an executive crying for his mother. But this time there was a difference. A series can’t be rerun after only one season. Anybody who’s ever studied TV knows that. There just aren’t enough episodes to hold an audience. But Battlestar did rerun, and in spite of protests from diehard critics, it held the audience. As a result, networks are suddenly grabbing for SF reruns that producers couldn’t even give away before.

CBS jumped on Night Stalker, and ABC countered with Planet of the Apes. They even shot new footage to make it more enticing. Finally, this season, The Man From Atlantis was released for syndication, and all because one series refused to be a good little program and die.

Yet it was cancelled. The only problem bothering researchers was “why?” It took three years to find the answer to that question. It’s an answer that may explain why SF can pull millions of people into a theater, but can’t produce even one successful TV series. In other words, what happened to Battlestar is typical of how the networks deal with science fiction/fantasy programming.

The question of why the show was cancelled wasn’t and easy one to answer. ABC, facing the worst objections to a cancellation in its history, issued dozens of myths, rumours and out right lies to explain their action. It took three years just to shovel through the bull find out what didn’t happen.

For example, Battlestar Galactica was not a failure. By every method used to measure television it was a success, perhaps even the strongest new show of the 1978-79 season. The average rating for a successful new series is 18. Battlestar, at 20.4 was a full five million viewers above the average and one of the top 25 series on television. It was the sixth highest rated new series for the entire season, and before ABC began fooling with the show, it was pulling ratings of 22 and 23, high enough to make it one of the top 15 series on TV. As the audience shares, for a successful new series the average is 28. Battlestar, at 32, was again well above the norm.

Then there are the demographics which measure who’s watching. They’re broken into five major divisions: Women 18-49, Men 18-49, Teenagers, Children and over 50s. Galactica placed in the top ten with three of the groups and in the top 20 for a fourth. Only a handful of programs can match those demographics and all of them are still on.

Then comes audience loyalty. It measures whether the audience really likes the show, or is just watching because nothing else is on. “Loyalty” is determined from a combination of feedback information including TvQ surveys, how well the series stands up to competition, the volume of fan mail received, audience reaction to the stars, magazine coverage after the network stops paying for the space, and so on.

According to this measurement Battlestar Galactica was the most powerful new series of the season. It held over 40 million viewers against the strongest competition both CBS and NBC could muster. It generated massive fan mail, thousands of threats against the lives of critics and the greatest flood of articles about a TV series ever written up to that time. It sold calendars, posters, bubble gum cards, models, toys and books. Finally they even sold the costume. Put together, these things indicate an audience loyalty no other new series could even come close to matching.

The final measurement, official recognition or awards won, is the most bragged about and least important of all measurements of success. Even there Battlestar can’t be beat. There were Emmys for costumes and special effects, the “People’s Choice Award” for the best new series, and awards for best program, best actor and best actress from the academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, just to mention a few.

Whichever way the figures are added up, they equal success. Even ABC admits that. But they were quick to add, “We expected so much more.” Did they really? According to available data that’s a lie. The scheduling guaranteed Battlestar wouldn’t get the ratings ABC claimed to be expecting. The networks, including ABC, have known the effect of scheduling for years. CBS even put it into words with their infamous “a series position in the schedule is more important than its content” statement. In actual numbers that means out of 240 new series offered between 1974 and 1979 only 27 broke an average rating of 20 and just six made it over 23. All six got a unique scheduling push. First, they were placed against weak competition. Second, they were given a spot on an already strong night. Third, the program just before it (the lead-in,) was in the top ten, or the new series was a spin off from the top ten; and fourth, the surrounding programming was well established and strong. So how did Battlestar Galactica meet the test?

Its competition was the strongest on television, with both CBS and NBC stacking their schedules against it. The night itself was only a moderate success. ABC hadn’t done any better than second place for years. The lead-in, The Hardy Boys, had an average rating of 13 and the program that followed Battlestar was a movie where the ratings depended on what was showing.

Not one of the four requirements needed to break 23 was present. In fact, Battlestar shouldn’t have broken 20. Yet it did, and when the competition was just another new series, it broke 24. Its ratings were so high CBS panicked, booted Mary Tyler Moore out and rearranged their entire schedule less than one month into the season. They took four of their five top series and formed a wall against Galactica. NBC didn’t have enough strong series to move, so they countered with their best movies, biggest miniseries and most publicized specials.

NBC lost. CBS won, barely Battlestar’s ratings declined two points to fluctuate between 21 and 23, still well within the top 15 shows on TV.

Of course, failure was only one of many myths that grew up around the series. For instance, Buck Rogers was not more popular than Battlestar Galactica. I’ve nothing against Buck (I even believe he got a rotten deal his second season) but, statistically, he wasn’t even in Battlestar’s ballpark. He’d have had to find at least another 10 million viewers just to get up to bat.

Battlestar did not cost ABC a million dollars an episode. According to Variety the price was more like $750,000, for which ABC bought the rights to show each episode twice (and you were wondering why such a failure reran all summer.) That was the same per hour fee ABC was paying for one showing only of the lower rated Monday Night Football and most of their Hollywood movies.

Universal Studios probably was paying a million dollars an episode, but it’s not unusual for a producer to lose money. On a series like Charley’s Angels the producers were losing between one and five million dollars a year. A producer makes money by owning a series that runs long enough to go into syndicated reruns. Once that happens, the rental fees make up for the original losses. Yet, in spite of a first season cancellation and a $250,000 per episode loss, Universal was happy. The release of Battlestar’s motion picture version had already paid for all production.  The money from ABC was profit.

I should add that, it spite of reports by critics and claims in at least two books, the movie version was not “cut together pieces of several episodes rushed into release to capitalize on audience shock over ABC’s cancellation.” As any fan can tell you, the movie was the first episode with only one major change, Baltar’s execution. It was released in Canada as a movie several weeks before the series began in an attempt to meet ABC’s demands that the program be audience tested without being shown to anyone in the U.S. To the surprise of everyone involved, what was for all purposes a TV pilot became a major motion picture success. To find out if it was just Canadians “who were strange,” Universal next released the film in England where it set attendance records.

Finally, after the series was cancelled, Universal was flooded with letters asking for the film. The studio complied with a limited release. In other words, they let it out, but only for a few weeks. In those weeks it made tens of millions from viewers who were, for the most part, fully aware of what they would be seeing.

As far as Universal was concerned, “Battlestar” was a financial miracle. Even ABC, despite rumors to the contrary, did not lose money on the series. According to figures from Advertising Age, A.C. Nielsen and Variety, after all fees had been paid, ABC still netted over 15 million dollars, and no matter how they pad the accounts, that still comes out to several million in pure profit.

Battlestar Galactica was not a kiddy show. Oh, it was extremely popular with the diaper set, but according to the National Demographics, for every child in the audience there were four men, three women and two teenagers. Of the adults, a full 30 per cent were college graduates and at least 20 per cent had done advanced work. Not even Star Trek can brag of a more educated, more adult audience.

Battlestar did not plunge down the rating ladder. I’m well aware ABC can show a 14-point drop. It’s done by carefully selecting the highest and lowest weekly figures. But, if that’s how a plunge is figured, Alice, All In the Family, Fantasy Island, Happy Days and a dozen other shows beat the Galactica to the bottom and lived to tell about it.

In the face of massive manipulation the average audience size did decline by about eight million viewers, or a loss of about 15 per cent. But, according to studies on scheduling, that was in response to pre-emption, not an indication of a dislike for the series. It was also less than half what should have been expected.

Was Battlestar a rip-off? That’s a strange charge to make against any one series during a season that produced four copies of Animal House, three of Charley’s Angels, a dozen of Three’s Company and even one, The American Girls that was billed as a “Bosomy” Route 66. “Rip-off” is an even stranger charge to be made by critics who were loudly proclaiming “Paper Chase” the greatest show of the decade.

In reality there isn’t a series on TV from 60 Minutes (a remake of the old 20 Centura to Trapper John (“Marcus Welby” by any other name) that can claim to be original, yet only one, Battlestar Galactica was officially labelled a “rip-off.”

That charge was first put into print by Time magazine’s critic, a man who hadn’t even seen the show. He based his review on ABC’s promotional spots, a basic plot outline and some careful arranging of the cast. For instance, he discovered if he left out Boomer, Cassiopea, Boxey and Colonel Tigh, he had two men, one woman, a cute robot and a father figure left, just like in that other movie. His review was so far-fetched even other critics ridiculed it.

While Time was the first to publish the charge, it didn’t actually originate there. That honor goes to what has all the appearance of a good old fashion publicity stunt, much like the “will Mr. Spock be killed” stunt we’re now witnessing. In short, a publicity stunt is simply a gimmick to get free advertising. In the case of Battlestar, it was a hoked-up law suit in which Fox accused Universal of stealing its plot from Star Wars and Universal counter sued claiming Fox stole its robots from Silent Running. This suit was a paper lion at best. Researchers could find no attempt to stop the showing of either production, no financial settlement and no pressure to get the case into court. Once the headlines stopped coming the whole thing just faded away but not before millions had rushed back to the theater to see the movie just one more time, or had decided to turn in the series just to see if it was that good a copy.

It was the kind of stunt producers dream of except for one little thing. It guaranteed the TV series would be labeled a rip-off no matter what it was actually like. Critics are not thinking people. Hand them a line and they’ll use it every time.

As for the critics, according to their reviews they did not hate the series. Oh some did, but an actual count showed opinion split 50/50. That equals mixed reviews, which happens to be the only thing any SF series has ever received, and that includes Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.

Television, in general, and SF in particular, seldom considers critical opinion. But with Battlestar they had to. A normal show expects maybe 15 to 20 reviews a season. Hundreds reviewed Battlestar. Every newspaper, magazine and most special interest publications all the way from Pravda, which felt the series was anti-Russian, to HIS magazine, which felt it was anti-protestant suddenly felt a need to express an opinion. By sheer mass of material, critical reviews took on an overblown importance. Somehow during all that talk, the fact that as many critics loved the show as hated it got lost.

All these myths were faithfully reported as reasons for cancellation, yet none of them hold water, so why was Battlestar Galactica cancelled? In short, ABC didn’t want it. The series was too expensive, so ABC killed it. That’s not sour grapes, that’s the conclusion of a controversial study conducted at Ball State University in Indiana.

“Hardcore” SF cannot produce enough profit to satisfy the networks even though the networks would love to have the SF community among their viewers. That’s why we get an endless line of programming like Mr. Merlin and The Incredible Hulk, which are relatively cheap to make, but not one hardcore SF series since Star Trek has been allowed to stay on. Because advertising rates are based on cost per-thousand viewers rather than cost of production, the average Galactica-like series needs ratings over 30 just to produce the same profits Real People will make with 19.

There are some naive people who assume a profit of several million and ratings in the 20’s should be enough to keep a show on the air, but few of these people own ABC stock. The people who do own stock want to see an increase in their dividends every year. That means advertising rates have to go up faster than production costs. The only way to do that is to eliminate expensive programming in favor of a cheaper model. Unfortunately, because of special effects, and the production quality demanded by the SF audience, SF is the most expensive type of series to produce for TV. It ranks just above Westerns, which aren’t exactly popular, themselves right now.

Of course ABC knew it couldn’t make its normal million dollar per episode, pre-tax profits even before Battlestar began. But they were trapped. For years networks managed to avoid anything but “comic book” SF by claiming the audience wasn’t large enough to support a series. They could point to a long list of failures to prove that. Even Star Trek didn’t succeed in the ratings until after NBC cancelled it and thus lost control over its schedule. But, then Star Wars proved once and for all there was a huge audience. To maintain their claim that the public controls programming (the claim the networks have used for years to stop all government, legal and pressure group interference) they had to produce a major SF series.

ABC, at the time the richest of the three, went with Battlestar, but only as a three-part miniseries. Unfortunately for them, once word got out, public reaction was so strong the network was forced to change its plans and order a full-fledged weekly series, but there was no intention of letting it succeed. ABC began by hyping the show. That means instead of buying ads, they got papers to give them free space under the heading of news.

No series in the history of television (until Dallas of course) had ever been so hyped. In one three-week period it was the cover story for Newsweek, People, US, TV Guide and almost 90 per cent of the “TV Weeklies” published in local newspapers. During the same period it was a major part of TIME and even the Smithsonian magazine did a special section on how it was being filmed. Everyone in the country thought they knew all about the series. Rumors were rampant. One SF magazine finally flew an editor to Canada just to view the actual film and hopefully find out what was really going on.

Such massive hyping guarantees two things. First of all, a huge opening audience, and secondly an audience loss. For Dallas the loss between the “Who Shot J.R.” episode and the next week was over 15 million viewers. Such a loss is expected. No series has ever been able to maintain a hyped rating. Yet in the case of Battlestar, which dropped from a rating of 28 to 25, or a loss of about nine million people, ABC claimed a decline proved the show couldn’t hold an audience.

Hyping also insures more than just a rating drop. It also usually precipitates a press backlash… which isn’t possible without the active support of gullible journalists, but once the baby’s been born they’ll scream rape every time. As Michael Ryan wrote, the press “has promised the audience a weekly version of Hamlet,” a promise no series can live up to. Journalists try to cover up that exaggeration by beating the newborn to death before anyone sees it.

At the same time that ABC was hyping the series to death, it was also interfering with production by demanding endless changes in the scripts and special effects. Special Effects Director John Dykstra finally quit as a result of this interference. He did not, as ABC is fond of saying, just decide to go back to movies. His actual statements were more to the effect that he refused to work for a network that didn’t understand even the most basic elements of production.

As a result of this handling, plus bad scheduling and over expectation, Battlestar should have died. It didn’t. The hype became self-perpetuating. ABC couldn’t stop it. Weeks after the official publicity had ended the audience were still demanding more.

ABC was in trouble. For a moment it looked like CBS would save them with their fast reprogramming, but the Galactica’s ratings didn’t drop enough. It was still one of the top 15 shows in the nation. So ABC began manipulating the series with things like pre-empting, time shifts, anything to keep the show from being seen when scheduled.

A 33 per cent manipulation rate, over a season, will kill any show old or new, 100 per cent of the time. It artificially forces the ratings down an average of five points for every three months it continues. Every SF series run since 1970 (except for Buck Rogers during its first season) has been manipulated that much or more before being cancelled.

With Battlestar Galactica ABC took no chances. From December on its manipulation rate was over 70 per cent. That means for five months, Battlestar was the special and the manipulations were the series. By the end of the official 32-week season the network had only managed to show 17 episodes. Now some of the pre-emptions were for bona fide specials, but most were for things like reruns of the Honeymooners, Charley’s Angels and double feature night at the movies. Most of these so-called specials drew ratings two to three points below the Galactica, so even ABC doesn’t claim they were being run to improve the night. In fact, when questioned about the massive manipulation they denied anything had happened.

In the face of manipulation that should have driven the ratings down a minimum of 10 points, Battlestar’s dropped only three. It held among the top 25 programs in the nation. When it was placed in the same time slot, Mork & Mindy, the top rated show of the decade, couldn’t even stay-in the top 30, and its manipulation rate was only 5 per cent, In other words, in spite of everything, Battlestar refused to fail. ABC cancelled it anyway.

The audience hit back with everything they had. Nothing like it had hit TV since the legendary cancellation of Star Trek itself. ABC was desperate. They counter-attacked by cranking out the rumors-everything from horror stories of disappearing audiences to hints that the series was only being revised. As a master touch, they ordered production of two new episodes, to be run (it was rumored) as movies in the fall while production problems were worked out in the original series.

It worked. Viewers decided to wait and see what would happen. The moment they did, ABC halted production, fired the cast and ordered the sets taken apart. It seemed like a brilliant move, ABC was happy for all of a month. It took that long for the audience to reorganize. Then they hit again, attacking right through the 1979-80 season. But, ABC wasn’t beaten yet. They simply revived the series, but they put it against 60 Minutes to eliminate the adult audience. Next the stories were “kiddyfied” to get rid of any holdouts. The result was a sitcom with Galactican uniforms and Six Million Dollar Man side effects. As a final touch ABC changed the cast. That alone was sure to keep the ratings down. Viewers had nothing against the new faces; Kent McCord and Barry Van Dyke are fine actors, but they’re not Apollo and Starbuck. It was like bringing back Star Trek without Kirk and Spock.

When the series was cancelled again there was very little protest. The new version really wasn’t worth fighting over. But, ABC had sinned and God would punish them. In order to justify cancelling the show, they had to succeed with their Sunday night replacement. To do that, they picked dear, unbelievably successful, Mork & Mindy, but that left a hole in Thursday night. Laverne & Shirley filled it nicely and Angie took their spot on Tuesday Unfortunately, faced with the same competition as Battlestar, Mork & Mindy not only couldn’t beat its ratings, it found itself fighting just to stay on. Worse yet, it was dragging The Sunday Night Movie down with it. ABC might have been able to ride out that problem, but their other moves were also failing. Laverne & Shirley which hadn’t left the top 10 since its beginning, suddenly wasn’t even in the top 30, and Happy Days was following it down the rating ladder. Angie fell so far nothing could save it. To get rid of one SF upstart, ABC sacrificed its first place position and lost millions of viewers and dollars. But Battlestar was cancelled. ABC had succeeded to that. In itself that wasn’t unusual. The networks have succeeded in getting rid of every hardcore SF series offered for the last dozen years. In fact, the way ABC dealt with the Galactica is pretty much how the networks always deal with SF. But, this time some SF publications openly congratulated them for getting rid of this upstart, which was beginning to replace Star Trek in conversations. These publications even helped distribute ABC’s excuses.

That was the real tragedy. Battlestar’s still being rerun. As for the stars, they’ll probably be more successful now than if the series had run for years. It made them household names but wasn’t around long enough to typecast them.

For television SF, the cancellation could be death. In their rush to be rid of this fantasy upstart, many publications made a fatal mistake. They helped ABC cancel the statistically most successful SF show ever to appear on TV. In effect, ABC announced to the world there is no audience large enough to justify an expensive SF series-that includes fiction as well as fantasy By helping the network get away with that, SF magazines may have helped sign a television death warrant. Right now, SF’s future on TV doesn’t look good, unless of course, we’re willing to settle for network-approved sitcoms.

Thanks to Peter Noble for finding and supplying us with this article.