It’s 1979, and the National Broadcasting Company – who for many decades was the predominant force in primetime television dramas and comedies – was sputtering. The network, mired in third place behind ABC and CBS, tried everything they could to draw an audience. Put McLean Stevenson in a sitcom about a radio talk show host? Build a variety show about two Japanese singers who can’t speak English, and their American comedian partner who can’t speak Japanese? An anthology drama series based on a futuristic transcontinental nuclear-powered passenger train?
Yep. NBC did all those. And all three of those shows – Hello Larry, Pink Lady and Jeff and Supertrain – all failed miserably. MISERABLY.
Some of these were noble failures, others were just notably fails. But there was one NBC television series in that tumultuous 1979 season, where the network tried to bring back a very popular film genre – the motion picture serial, complete with thrilling chapter-ending cliffhangers – and tried to position this series as a “wheel” anthology series.
And thus begat the show Cliff Hangers!. The show was created by Kenneth Johnson, who produced several popular and well-received genre shows, including The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, Alien Nation and V. And it was hoped that Cliff Hangers! would bring the serialized Saturday afternoon movie genre to the small screen.
Three different self-contained programs – Stop Susan Williams, in which actress-singer Susan Anton played a photojournalist on the trail of a major case; The Curse of Dracula, in which Michael Nouri haunted modern-day America in search of new victims; and The Secret Empire, in which a cowboy discovers a futuristic society underground – would air in the Cliff Hangers! hour, each program receiving 20 minutes per week of air time.
NBC was confident in this show. They had previous success with other “wheel” anthology shows, such as The Name of the Game, The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (and, of course, the NBC Tuesday Mystery Movie), and Four In One. Plus, if any of these serials garnered superlative ratings, NBC could add half-hour or hour-long episodes of each program to its upcoming fall lineup as standalone programs, with new serials to debut as the Cliff Hangers! show progressed.
There was a couple of eensy-weensy problems with Cliff Hangers!, problems that the show instantly acquired and never recovered from.
The first problem was that the show’s premiere episode started with Chapter II of Stop Susan Williams, Chapter III of The Secret Empire, and Chapter VI of The Curse of Dracula. And the program aired as if this was totally normal, so right off the bat viewers thought, “Oh wait, I missed some episodes, I can’t watch this if I didn’t see Chapter I of the series, I’ll turn something else on.”
The second problem was that Cliff Hangers! was scheduled for Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m. on NBC. Not a bad timeslot, it’s part of the “Family Hour,” it’s a good show to have everyone sit around the couch and watch together … if they weren’t watching something else at 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday nights. Like Happy Days, followed by Laverne and Shirley. And back then, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley were the top two programs on prime time television. Meanwhile, CBS had the erudite college / legal drama The Paper Chase, so fans of Fonzie and Professor Kingsfield already snagged those two timeslots. And very few families owned video cassette recorders at the time, so there wasn’t any “we can watch Happy Days now and watch Cliff Hangers! later” thoughts.
Also, Cliff Hangers! was the second series NBC shoved in that 8:00 p.m. Tuesday time slot, after another drama, Grandpa Goes to Washington (Jack Albertson as a college professor turned senator) was quickly cancelled.
Now somebody actually had a VCR in 1979, and was fortuitous enough to tape episodes of Cliff Hangers! back then. And they recently posted the episodes to YouTube, so I can actually watch this show for the first time in nearly 40 years. Wow.
Honestly, I see what they were trying to do with the program … and I can see why it didn’t initially work.
However, today we have very popular serialized television dramas, including shows like 24 that have every episode ending in figurative cliffhangers. How is Jack Bauer going to get out of this one? Tick tick tick…
Here’s Chapter 3 of Stop Susan Williams, Chapter 4 of The Secret Empire, and Chapter 7 of The Curse of Dracula.
Here’s Chapter 4 of Stop Susan Williams, Chapter 5 of The Secret Empire, and Chapter 8 of The Curse of Dracula.
Here’s Chapter 5 of Stop Susan Williams, Chapter 6 of The Secret Empire, and Chapter 9 of The Curse of Dracula.
Apparently this guy missed the show for two weeks, but he resumed soon afterward.
Here’s Chapter 8 of Stop Susan Williams, Chapter 9 of The Secret Empire, and Chapter 12 of The Curse of Dracula.
Here’s Chapter 9 of Stop Susan Williams, Chapter 10 of The Secret Empire, and Chapter 13 of The Curse of Dracula.
Here’s Chapter 10 of Stop Susan Williams, Chapter 11 of The Secret Empire, and Chapter 14 of The Curse of Dracula. I think this is actually where The Curse of Dracula wrapped up.
Here’s Chapter 12 of Stop Susan Williams, and both Chapters 13 and 14 of The Secret Empire. This episode aired overseas; the show had been cancelled by this point in time.
And just like that, Cliff Hangers! was over. The show drew microscopic ratings, it was expensive to produce (while one show was a procedural crime drama, the other two were sci-fi and horror, with one of the shows being sci-fi AND a Western), and with three different shows, you now have three different casts and three different production teams. Which would hvae been fine, had the show won its timeslot or even received critical acclaim.
No. This was a crash and burn. A unique crash and burn, but a crash and burn nonetheless.
Eventually, the series was re-edited into several TV movies, including two Dracula films and The Girl Who Saved the World, a re-editing of the Stop Susan Williams serial.
But yeah, this was a time when NBC threw everything they could at the prime time schedule and hoped something stuck.
Tin this show, however, it didn’t stick. It just hit the fan.