In 1979, NBC was looking for a hit. Any hit.
When Fred Silverman became president of NBC in June 1978, he immediately ordered sixty pilots for new shows, as he felt that nearly the entire roster of 1978-1979 shows might not make it. Seeing as how he couldn’t start until June after leaving ABC, that meant that he’d need to be ready for mid-season replacements.
The network canceled Chico and the Man, The Bionic Woman, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, Police Woman, CPO Sharkey, What Really Happened to the Class of ’65? and James at 16, proposing to replace them with The Waverly Wonders, Legs, Coast to Coast, The Eddie Capra Mysteries, W.E.B., The Sword of Justice, Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday and Operation Runaway.
As the jiggle trend faced backlash — Silverman had been the proponent of these shows where shapely women showed up in little to no clothing — he decided to tone down Legs, changing it from a tale of women doing anything to make it as chorus girls and re-emerging as a sitcom called Who’s Watching the Kids? Operation Runway and Coast to Coast were dropped and an educational show about doctors, Lifeline, was added.
Within weeks, W.E.B. — a series about the inner workings of a television network — and The Waverly Wonders were both canceled. And by November, Grandpa Goes to Washington, Swords of Justice, Lifeline, The Eddie Capra Mysteries and Who’s Watching the Kids were all canceled. Even two fill-in shows, David Cassidy–Man Undercover and Project U.F.O. also died.
Replacing them would be one of the biggest mid-season replacement orders of all time. They would be Diff’rent Strokes (one of the few bright spots on NBCs 1979 lineup), newsmagazine Weekend being given a weekday show and nine new programs: Supertrain (one of the biggest failures in TV history), Little Women, Mrs. Columbo, Sweepstake, Hello, Larry (which was another botch for McLean Stevenson after leaving M*A*S*H*), Turnabout, Brothers and Sisters, B.J. and the Bear and Cliffhangers*.
Cliffhangers was three simultaneous chances at making a hit for the network, taking three different genres — science fiction, adventure and horror — and making three unique stories, which would be The Secret Empire, Stop Susan Williams and The Curse of Dracula.
You can only imagine how excited a seven-year-old version of me was, someone who stayed up until 4 AM to watch the old Flash Gordon serials on Sunday mornings, now getting to see three totally new serials.
Well, I was excited until this show ran up against Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, getting destroyed in the ratings and ending after only ten episodes.
It had plenty of talent on board. Beyond series creator Kenneth Johnson, who also created The Bionic Woman, V, the Alien Nation TV series and developing The Incredible Hulk for TV, writers included Andrew Schneider (Northern Exposure, The Sopranos), Sam Egan, Richard Christian Matheson (the son of Richard Matheson) and Jeri Taylor (Star Trek).
The three stories (which we will get more in-depth on later today) were:
Stop Susan Williams: Susan Anton played a gorgeous TV journalist investigating the murder of her brother, which leads her to an international conspiracy. These episodes were recut and reissued as a TV movie entitled The Girl Who Saved the World. Based on The Perils of Pauline, this story had one chapter left when the show was canceled.
The Secret Empire: A new version of The Phantom Empire, in which a cowboy learns of an alien city underground. This series had a cool trick where the scenes above ground were in sepia and the secret empire was in color.
The Curse of Dracula: After six hundred years, Dracula (Michael Nouri) has grown tired of immortality and is looking for the love of a woman to make him mortal. This was edited into two movies, Dracula ’79 and World of Dracula. It’s the only story that reached its conclusion by the end of the series.
One of the major issues audiences had with this show was that the stories began in the middle, with Williams beginning with “Chapter 2: The Silent Enemy,” Empire with “Chapter 3: Plunge Into Mystery” and Dracula presenting “Chapter VI: Lifeblood.” You can only imagine that people felt confused and left pondering if they’d missed something.
The goal was for these shows to gain in popularity and spin-off to make their own shows, at which point they’d be replaced by new cliffhangers. Sadly, this never happened.
Credit to TV Obscurities for their amazing research.
*This was the most disastrous season for NBC ever with sixteen shows canceled by season’s end.
You can watch the first episode here.