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Star Trek and American Television History

In 1966, the original Star Trek series was just another television show, as subject to the established institutional practices of the television industry as all the other shows made by Desilu Productions and broadcast by the NBC network. By 2005, when Star Trek: Enterprise ceased production, Star Trek and its spin-off series had become an unprecedented television phenomenon and a major asset for Paramount and its United Paramount Network (UPN). This chapter tells the story of how Star Trek went from failure during the classic network era to astonishing success in the multichannel era. We begin by arguing that, despite the subsequent renown of the original series (hereafter referred to as TOS) and its creator, Gene Roddenberry, the program emerged from and typified the standard business practices and assumptions of the classic network era. Yet from its inception, Star Trek also atypically diverged in several ways from these practices and in doing so looked forward to the multichannel era. This chapter's second section examines three significant divergences from the classic network era's standard practices and assumptions: Roddenberry's construction of a producer brand; TOS's appeal to niche audiences; and Star Trek's role in the decline of the three-network oligopoly and the transition to the multichannel environment. The chapter focuses primarily upon TOS and upon the broad economic strategies of the television industry in the classic network and multichannel eras. The following three chapters continue the story of Star Trek during the multichannel era by examining the day-to-day production practices of the post-TOS series.

Star Trek and the Classic Network Era

Understanding Star Trek's initial conditions of production and distribution requires an understanding of the basic operations of the classic network era: that period, from roughly 1960 to 1980, in which the oligopoly constituted by the big three networks-CBS, NBC, and ABC-secured control of production, distribution, and exhibition through what Michele Hilmes calls a "tight vertical integration, similar to that of the movie studios before 1947." In terms of production, by 1965 the networks owned or had an interest in 91 percent of the prime-time programs made for them by the Hollywood studios or independent producers. Despite the fact that a "variety of players" produced these programs, the networks' oligopolistic control of distribution and exhibition mandated that producers conform to a narrow range of accepted practices in originating new programs. In terms of distribution and exhibition, the networks had rapidly expanded their market penetration, purchasing stations in the largest metropolitan areas while at the same time signing up 80 percent of independently owned stations as network affiliates. These affiliates, with contractual agreements to broadcast network programming in return for a percentage of the advertising revenues that underpinned the entire system, were persuaded to devote ever-larger proportions of airtime to the network feed. These tactics expanded the audience for network programming to over 90 percent of American households, making television a very attractive medium for advertisers. Such exhibition practices, asserts Hilmes, militated against artistry and originality: "With a system that attracted a national audience and a market so neatly divided between the nets, few openings existed for creative, innovative productions that challenged the bland, formulaic network patterns."

Fundamental to these bland, formulaic network patterns was the networks' consensual interpretation of the mass audience's viewing habits, best expressed by Paul Klein, NBC's vice president for audience measurement, in his theory of "least objectionable programming." A least objectionable program was one that would not cause viewers to switch to a rival network and ensured that each of the three networks would get the largest possible share of the national audience in each half-hour slot. Although not using the term, Klein articulated the concept of "flow" in the pages of the popular publication TV Guide two years before Raymond Williams did so in the scholarly Television and Cultural Form. In a 1972 book chapter based on his TV Guide article, Klein explained that "the single most important thing to know about the American television audience" was that it stayed the same size (about 36 million TV sets) irrespective of the quality of the programming. Klein believed that, during prime time-the most valuable time of day in the United States in terms of advertising revenues, generally from 7 P.M. to 10 P.M.-audiences switched on their sets to watch television rather than to tune in to individual programs. Wanting to stay tuned in no matter what was on offer, viewers chose the program that "can be endured with the least amount of pain and suffering." Network programmers operated on the assumption that a program didn't have to be good but only "less objectionable than whatever the hell the other guys throw against it." The "least objectionable program" strategy, aiming to ensure that viewers stayed with a network's prime-time schedule throughout the evening rather than switching over to the opposition, dictated program commissioning, production, and scheduling.

Reluctance to innovate stemmed from network executives' belief that the mass audience would immediately reject any show departing from the lowest-common-denominator norm by tuning to a rival network's offering. According to Muriel Cantor, in her book The Hollywood TV Producer, most producers shared the networks' assessment of their viewers, seeing them as "a mass audience, rather than a segmented one" and having a "low opinion of their audience's intelligence, urbanity, and discrimination." Said one producer: "We try not to do anything controversial. Nor do we try to reach people of high intellect. Because of this we are a success. . . . The formulas work for television and will continue to work." But some of Cantor's interviewees believed that the networks' conservatism was "losing a valuable group of viewers" who might watch "higher-level television shows." One producer said, "I know the audience is smarter, more intelligent that they [the networks] think it is. One of the reasons so many shows fail is that the networks and others underestimate the IQ of the audience. How many of the same kinds of shows can be on the air? There should be shows with more character and originality that tap the more intelligent audience."

Many years later, Robert Justman, an associate producer of TOS, retrospectively aligned himself with these minority voices when speaking of NBC's reaction to the first Star Trek pilot: "They [the network executives] mentioned things like our concepts were 'too intricate for the normal television human mind.' I thought it wasn't that way at all. I felt that we could barely keep up with people." Even in the classic network era, some began to pay attention to the niche audiences that became key drivers of the multichannel era. We return to this point below.

When Gene Roddenberry first conceived of Star Trek in 1963, he needed a studio and a network to realize his idea for the series; acquiring that studio and persuading that network would require compliance with the industry's dominant assumptions and practices. Roddenberry, however, was a marginal player within the industry's power structures, having come to television relatively late after previous careers as a US Army Air Force and Pan Am pilot and then as a Los Angeles policeman. Roddenberry was a minor writer-producer who had begun his television career as a freelance writer for such shows as Highway Patrol (ZIV Television Programs, 1955-59), West Point (ZIV Television Programs, 1956-58), and Have Gun Will Travel (CBS Television, 1957-63) and had just graduated to producing his first series, the US Marine Corps drama The Lieutenant (1963-64), made by MGM for ABC. Roddenberry first offered Star Trek to MGM, in the person of executive producer Norman Felton, who oversaw production of The Lieutenant. When Felton expressed no interest, Roddenberry's agent suggested going to Desilu Productions.

Cofounded in 1950 by Lucille Ball and her husband at the time, Desi Arnaz, Desilu had built on the wild success of I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-57) to become a significant figure among the independent studios supplying programs to the networks in the early 1960s. The term "independent" served to distinguish Desilu and similar enterprises devoted solely to television production from the television units of the major studios such as Warner Bros., but as Michele Hilmes put it, these so-called independents were "dependent on network investment to stay afloat; they had essentially become production arms of the networks." The independents had come to dominate television production during the 1960s, accounting for nearly 70 percent of prime-time fiction shows by 1963. Desilu was a member of that tightly closed circle of networks and their executives, and studios and their producers, that made the mostly bland and formulaic programs of the classical network era. But even this tightly closed circle permitted some limited degree of innovation; as Mark Alvey put it, "[P]roducers and networks are involved in a constant process of redefinition, attempting to strike the right balance of entertainment and ideas, familiarity and innovation, continuity and flexibility." Alvey dubs this balance "regulated innovation." Desilu had already achieved success and even some degree of notoriety with the innovative crime drama The Untouchables (ABC, 1959-63), noted for its fast-paced action, over-the-top violence, and noirish visual style; there was a probability that the studio would be willing to reformulate another established genre-science fiction-that had up to that time been associated primarily with a children's audience.

At this point, enter another key figure in the birth of Star Trek: Herb Solow, Desilu's vice president in charge of production. While many equate Star Trek solely with Roddenberry, Solow himself claims a great deal of the credit: "I ran the studio. I was the one who dealt with Gene, who developed the concept with Gene and worked with Gene on the script, who sold the script to NBC, sold the pilot, sold the series to NBC and supervised it." Solow may not be a completely reliable source. His public pronouncements indicate resentment of the godlike status bestowed upon Roddenberry within Star Trek fandom, and he has for years sought recognition for his part in Star Trek's origins, most prominently in his book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, coauthored with TOS associate producer Robert Justman (a work that we recommend to the reader for a full account of Star Trek's development and production and on which we draw in this chapter). While his accounts of Star Trek's early days, and particularly of Roddenberry's role in them, are for this reason subject to a degree of skepticism, we try to assess Solow's claims in light of our understanding of the operations of the classic network era. From this perspective, we conclude that, although the idea for Star Trek indubitably originated in the mind of Gene Roddenberry, it required Herb Solow, or someone like him, to bring that idea to the television screen.

Solow first met Roddenberry in 1964 when the writer-producer came to the Desilu lot to pitch his new series. Roddenberry did not make an initial favorable impression on the executive, who reports telling him, "It must be good because you sure as hell can't sell it. You're not a good salesman." Despite his reservations about Roddenberry and about some elements of the Star Trek concept, Solow offered him a script-development deal. Soon thereafter, Oscar Katz, Desilu president, took Roddenberry to CBS to do another pitch; the network passed, ostensibly because Star Trektoo closely resembled their already commissioned Lost in Space (1965-68). Contra this, Solow suggests that the failure stemmed from a lack of conformity to the classic network era's dominant practices: the concept was as yet insufficiently developed to take to a network, and Roddenberry was "probably the most ineffective pitchman for a series . . . that [Solow] had ever met in the television business." While Roddenberry was disappointed at CBS's rebuff, Solow, who had just recently moved from NBC to Desilu, saw an opportunity: "It was actually a happy day for me as I was able to offer it and sell it to . . . my . . . friends and former associates at NBC." Among these friends was "Grant Tinker who later became the CEO of NBC, but at that time was the Vice President of Programs on the West Coast. So I could call Grant and I could say, which I did, 'I have something that I think would be good for you guys.'"

Unlike Roddenberry, Solow was a consummate insider among the handful of networks and studios that originated the vast majority of American television programs: "I was fortunate in going from college to working in a talent agency mailroom, the William Morris Agency in New York, and learning that world, and then going into syndicated television programs at NBC and then into daytime programs at NBC and CBS, and on to . . . Desilu." Solow's characterization of his relationship with his friends at NBC resonates with Todd Gitlin's analysis of an "industry dominated by a small world of executives, suppliers, producers, and agents spinning through revolving doors," in which "[network] executives with passable records and good contacts slide through the revolving door and get good jobs as suppliers and studio executives." The revolving door functioned as one of the networks' risk-reduction strategies, as Gitlin explains: "Since the networks don't know how to read popular moods and therefore listen to established suppliers, an established supplier is in a stronger position than a producer off the street to devise a fresh show and sell it." Solow, having revolved from network executive to studio executive at established supplier Desilu, was in a much stronger position than Roddenberry, "a producer off the street," to sell a fresh show, while his insider status and proven track record mitigated the risk posed by Star Trek's more innovative elements. As Gitlin says, "Market power eventually rests on a record of continued success, but it can also be used . . . as a license to break the rules from time to time." In other words, there was in the classic network era, to use Alvey's formulation, a balance between regulation and innovation-a balance that Star Trek typifies.

By the time Roddenberry and Solow took their first meeting with Tinker and Jerome Stanley, NBC's director of current programs, they had refined the Star Trek concept, putting itinto the "language of television" and foregrounding regulation in order to sanction innovation. A few decades later, William Shatner told us that this, rather than the "Roddenberry vision" of a utopian future, attested to the producer's skill: "It takes a certain genius to do that, to sell a series, to come up with a commercial enough theme, and a kind of concept that speaks to these network executives." A few years after we spoke with Shatner, Catherine Johnson echoed his words, saying that while there has been a "mythologisation of Gene Roddenberry as [Star Trek's] maverick creator who used the 'cloak' of science fiction to disguise the treatment of contemporary socio-cultural issues," TOS should not be understood "as a uniquely innovative programme enabled by Roddenberry's ingenious use of science fiction" but rather as a response to the "needs of commercial US television."

Roddenberry himself said that he had decided that Star Trek "should appear on the outside to be nothing more than safe, acceptable adventure stuff," although we suspect Solow's influence (unacknowledged by Roddenberry) in making the show safer and more acceptable. For example, Solow reports that Roddenberry initially conceived of Mr. Spock as having "not only pointed ears, but a long tail and was red!" While this was "inventive," Solow told Roddenberry, "it's terrible because television will not accept that." The show that the two pitched to NBC conformed in many ways to the classic network era's dominant assumptions-most crucially, those concerning the mass audience and least objectionable programming. The outline of the series's format, reproduced in its entirety in The Making of Star Trek, stressed the familiarity of the unfamiliar: "Star Trek keeps all of Science Fiction's variety and excitement but still stays within a mass audience frame of reference by avoiding 'way-out' fantasy and cerebral science theorem, and instead concentrating on problem and peril met by our very human and very identifiable continuing characters." By contrast with the anthology format and in keeping with the series format that had dominated American television since the mid-1950s, Star Trek would each week return the audience to recurring characters and a recurring setting, the Enterprise, a "permanent set" that "provides us with a familiar, week-to-week locale." This would seem familiar to an audience accustomed to the hit series Gunsmoke, with its Dodge City, and Dr. Kildare, with its Blair General Hospital-both, like the starship crew, "complete and highly varied" communities. In addition to familiar characters and settings, a show aiming for "least objectionable program" status also had to draw upon the familiar conventions of the action-adventure genre that, as Johnson says, "had become the dominant form of episodic television drama by the mid-1960s." Invoking another hit series, the outline described the format thus: "The Format is 'Wagon Train to the Stars'-built around characters who travel to other worlds and meet the jeopardy and adventure which become our stories." Roddenberry also had in mind another variant on the action-adventure genre-the naval saga, most successfully exploited by C. S. Forester in his Horatio Hornblower series. As Shatner told us, "Wagon Train and Horatio Hornblower were the antecedents of Star Trek. Gene gave me a book written by C. S. Forester on Horatio Hornblower. Horatio Hornblower was a young captain of a British vessel that was plying the seas around the world, and he was a world unto himself because he was so far away from a command center."

The format outlinealso asserted that Star Trek would "combine the most varied in drama-action-adventure with complete production practicality." The network executives needed to be persuaded that the show would not unduly challenge their audiences, and also that it would not unduly challenge their and Desilu's budgets. NBC, under then-current licensing practices, had to foot the greater part of the bill and wanted to ensure that Desilu would be able to make up the shortfall. The format outline explained that Star Trek allowed "production-budget practicality by extensive use of a basic and amortized standing set" as well as through the "similar world concept" that permitted "a wide use of existing studio sets, backlots, and local locations, plus unusually good use of in stock costumes, contemporary and historical." A great deal of the action would take place on that basic standing set, the Enterprise bridge; Los Angeles locations would stand in for alien planets; and the historical costumes would be used in episodes such as "Patterns of Force" (2:21) (Nazis), "Bread and Circuses" (2:25) (Romans), and "A Piece of the Action" (2:17) (1930s gangsters).

Nonetheless, Star Trek still became one of the most expensive shows on network television. Compared with the industry standard cost of $160,000 per episode, its budget was $200,000. This left Desilu to pick up the $40,000 discrepancy between NBC's payment of $160,000 per episode and the actual cost of production. The studio, as was then standard practice, expected to lose money during the show's first run and to make money when it went into off-network syndication.

While Shatner locates Roddenberry's "genius" in selling Star Trek, Michael Okuda, chief graphics designer on the post-TOS series, locates it in Star Trek's production practicalities:

Gene Roddenberry's genius wasn't really that he constructed a fun science fiction universe. It was that he and his colleagues on the original Star Trek consciously sat down and said, "We're going to do a television show about the vastness of the cosmos and all the strange things that one finds there." And for a low-budget television show, even a high-budget television show, that's something that's very nearly impossible. You can't do that. So how do you make it doable? Roddenberry said, "OK, we're going to tell the majority of that story from one control room." So you can afford to build one control room. "And most of the rest of the stories are going to take place on the standing spaceship sets . . . most of the time when you go to planets, it's going to be on earthlike planets and with earthlike aliens." And if you accept those conventions, you set out to do something which was entirely impractical and made it very practical. And that was genius.

But, despite Roddenberry's and Solow's best efforts to present Star Trek as a typical classic-network-era show, they had not convinced Tinker and Stanley that "it would make a commercial television series, that there was enough of an audience out there to support the mixture of science fiction and fantasy." Just as Solow claims that his insider status had secured the pitch, he claims that it also secured the network's acquiescence: "I wasn't going to take no for an answer. These were my friends. At least they could give me a script commitment. They went ahead and agreed to a script, which was great." The executives committed twenty thousand dollars to the development of three story ideas, from which the network would choose one for the pilot; of the three, the network preferred the story outline for "The Cage." This first pilot features James T. Kirk's predecessor, Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter), who leaves the USS Enterprise with a landing party in response to a distress signal from the planet Talos IV. The Talosians, strange-looking, monklike creatures with translucent heads, have lured Pike and his colleagues to the planet in order to encourage them to breed and help regenerate their enfeebled race. The humans refuse to be used in this way, and the Talosians give in and let them return to their ship.

Unfortunately, the network was less tractable than the Talosians, the pilot's divergence from more customary bland formulas indicating that a Star Trek series might pose too great a risk. As Robert Justman later told us, "NBC was considerably appalled by the pilot we made. So much so that they called Herb and Gene in and said, 'Look, we like what you did, but there's some things we want to change, especially in the areas of casting, and especially in the areas of "don't be so smart."'"

Network executives thought the pilot "too cerebral," a phrase that appears in both Whitfield and Roddenberry's and Solow and Justman's books and was repeated by Justman in his interview with us. Whitfield and Roddenberry report that NBC thought that the "story line was too involved, too literate, and dwelt too much upon intangibles" and that "there just wasn't enough action in the show." Roddenberry wrote, "I had known the only way to sell Star Trek was with an action-adventure plot. But I forgot my plan and tried for something proud." The network was unhappy with the lack of action and adventure in a program that Solow and Roddenberry had pitched to them in terms of the action-adventure format. The pilot had tipped the balance between regulation and innovation too far toward the latter.

There were also, as Justman told us, problems with the casting. NBC particularly disliked Majel Barrett in the role of the Enterprise's first officer. Solow insists that Barrett was not right for the part and that the network had doubts about her ability to carry the show as the costar. Whitfield and Roddenberry tell a different story: according to them, when the network tested the pilot, viewers' opinions of the Barrett character "ranged from resentment to disbelief," leading NBC to conclude that audiences would "resent the idea of a tough, strong-willed woman as second in command." Despite this, the questionnaires showed that audiences liked the actress-the reason Roddenberry gives for subsequently casting her as Nurse Chapel. The fact that Barrett was one of his retinue of girlfriends (which also included the other two female members of the cast, Nichelle Nichols and Grace Lee Whitney) might also have influenced his decision. It may also have influenced Solow's report of NBC's dislike. Whatever motivated NBC's wariness toward Barrett and/or her character, their concern about the Spock character stemmed from NBC Sales, which was worried about his pointed ears and slanting eyes "being seen as demonic by Bible-Belt affiliate station owners and important advertisers." NBC's Broadcast Standards and Practices more generally worried about how the pilot's "eroticism" would play out in an ensuing series. Solow and Justman assert that NBC's dissatisfaction was primarily due to sensitivity to "the manners and morals of mid 1960s America." A least objectionable program could not feature a demonic Spock or scantily clad slave girls.

Its maiden voyage having revealed serious design flaws, the Enterprise might have remained in dry dock had not NBC radically deviated from its established practices to offer Desilu, Roddenberry, and Solow an unprecedented second chance to demonstrate the proposed series' conformity with those practices. Mort Werner, head of programming, who had "loved" "The Cage," persuaded the network to pay for a second pilot, arguing that the story chosen for the first pilot had not "properly showcased Star Trek's series potential." According to Whitfield and Roddenberry, the chance to make a second pilot "shattered all television precedent." Happy with this pilot ("Where No Man Has Gone Before," written by science-fiction author Sam Peeples), NBC told Desilu to put the series into production. Despite the precedent-shattering second pilot's violating the period's dominant assumptions and practices, when Star Trek went into production, the network for the most part managed it in accord with those dominant assumptions and practices with regard to content, scheduling, and, most crucially, ratings. Muriel Cantor articulated one assumption that had particular applicability to Star Trek: "It is well known that networks are reluctant to try new ideas and would rather remake series with themes that have been successful, particularly in the recent past. When a show is considered 'different,' creative, or controversial, the networks take more interest in its production." The first pilot had certainly alerted the network to Star Trek's potential for difference, creativity, and controversy, perhaps inclining NBC to keep a closer eye on it than upon its more conventional programs.

Chief among those keeping a close eye would be Jean Messerschmidt, representative of NBC's Broadcast Standards and Practices, who, according to Robert Justman, "performed her job and performed it well," being both "firm and reasonable." But some degree of conflict was inevitable, given her responsibility to ensure that Star Trek did not transgress "the manners and morals of mid 1960s America," as had the first pilot. The three networks' Standards and Practices departments enforced a voluntary self-censorship, similar to that of the Hollywood film studios, reviewing "all non-news broadcast matter, including entertainment, sports and commercials, for compliance with legal, policy, factual, and community standards." Most important, Standards and Practices ensured compliance with the National Association of Broadcasters Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, to which both the networks and their affiliates subscribed. Solow said that "every story line, every teleplay, every completed episode resulted in a memorandum from Broadcast Standards detailing items that either had to be changed or removed." The code prohibited "profanity, obscenity, smut and vulgarity"; Broadcast Standards recommended the omission of a "damned" from the script for "Miri" (TOS 1:8). The code mandated that "reverence is to mark any mention of the name of God"; Broadcast Standards recommended that "McCoy's line 'Thank God for that fantastic strength of his' must be delivered in a reverent manner." The code instructed that "the use of horror for its own sake will be eliminated; the use of visual or aural effect which would shock or alarm the viewer"; Broadcast Standards recommended "restraint here and throughout the script [of "Miri"] to ensure that the blemishes are not unnecessarily gruesome to the viewer." The code dictated that "the costuming of all performers shall be within the bounds of propriety"; Broadcast Standards recommended "caution here [in "Miri"] when Janice opens her uniform to check on the progress of the disease; avoid exposure which would embarrass or offend." The code also said that "the movements of dancers . . . shall be kept within the bounds of decency"; so much for green Orion slave girls.

From a twenty-first-century perspective, network executives fretting about gruesome blemishes or embarrassing exposure may seem risible, but we should remember that the code's dos and don'ts reflected-indeed, enforced-the consensual view of the mass audience described above, advising broadcasters to "bear constantly in mind that the audience is primarily a home audience." Solow, we think correctly, defends the network from those such as Roddenberry who accused NBC of undue interference: "Star Trek suffered no more than any other network show. All programming was subject to the same restrictions." But the comments of Solow's coauthor, Robert Justman, indicate that these restrictions, even if common to all shows, were nonetheless irksome. Justman told us that the biggest difference in working on TOS and TNG was that for the latter series there "was no network. There was no Broadcast Standards department. There were no censors. We censored ourselves, so to speak. We did not have to submit one of our stories to the network for approval by Programming, and that same script to Broadcast Standards for approval by the broadcast censors." We say more about this in the next chapter.

Just as NBC followed standard practices in censoring Star Trek, so it did in scheduling Star Trek. Despite the period's assumptions about programs having to appeal to a mass audience, the network's schedulers were aware that Star Trek appealed primarily to high school and college students. (For more on the concept of niche audiences, see below.) The Thursday at 8:30 slot assigned for the first season worked for this young audience; subsequent time slots on a Friday night did not, since the young viewers were more likely to be out of the house than watching television. The Friday slot resulted from the first season's disappointing ratings. Following the standard practice with underperforming shows, NBC scheduled Star Trek after the more successful Tarzan, gambling that viewers would stay with the network. They didn't, and ratings continued to be disappointing. After giving a last-minute reprieve from cancellation in the second season, NBC once more moved Star Trek, this time to the 10 P.M. Friday slot that helped to seal its doom as a first-run network program. But the schedulers were once again acting in accordance with conventional industry strategies, as Solow and Justman explain:

Due to its audience "age and gender" appeal, Star Trek would be most successful in an early-evening time period. But the programming and sales structure of network television necessitated a building-block effect. Shows on a given night were expected to move their audience on to the following shows, building to the late evening prime-time shows, more adult in nature, that would capture the time period and those big advertising dollars. However, the building-block effect did not work if the early-evening shows had no appreciable audience."

Star Trek's appeal to otherwise hard-to-reach young people probably kept it on the air for three seasons, but its failure to deliver the required audience share made it increasingly unattractive to advertisers, at that time concerned with absolute numbers and not with viewers' demographic profiles. For the most part, the networks wanted large numbers of viewers, not desirable, niche viewers. Since the first season's ratings were already weak and ratings continued to decline in the subsequent seasons, it's not surprising that NBC canceled Star Trek; what is surprising is that NBC renewed it for its second and third seasons.

In Defense of the Network: Supporting NBC

Continuing to act as industry insider long after his association with the network ceased, Solow has mounted a vigorous public defense of NBC, central to which is criticism of Gene Roddenberry, the man often regarded and even revered as Star Trek's prime mover by the fans. In one interview, Solow referred to "the usual Roddenberry self-promotion technique of blaming any personal shortcomings on NBC or the studio." He elaborated in another interview:

There were certain obligations and responsibilities I had to . . . NBC who put up a lot of money to buy the series. Gene was treated as every other television producer was treated in that you have leeway to do what we had discussed you should do. If you go past those boundaries, then of course we at Desilu, myself would come down and NBC would. . . . what he would do is take out the frustrations of not being in total control by picking scapegoats, so he would treat NBC as someone who was against him, for instance, which just wasn't the truth. NBC was trying to be supportive, but if there was a problem, Gene would turn it around and blame NBC, at times blame Desilu.

The strained relations between Solow and Roddenberry stemmed partly from their respective positions in the industry: Solow, the manager, with "certain obligations and responsibilities" to both Desilu and NBC; and Roddenberry, the self-proclaimed "artist," who valued self-expression and resented institutional constraints. Said Roddenberry while TOS was still in production: "The television writer-producer faces an almost impossible task when he attempts to create and produce a quality TV series. Assuming he conceived a program of such meaning and importance that it could ultimately change the face of America, he probably could not get it on the air or keep it there."

As we discuss in the following chapter, there is a fundamental tension between concepts of art and the requirements of commerce in the entertainment industry, one that seems to have played out in the relationship between Solow and Roddenberry. This conflict has also shaped the historical record, as seen in the often-divergent accounts of Star Trek's first incarnation offered by Solow and Roddenberry and their coauthors. Roddenberry's penchant for claiming the lion's share of the inspiration and the credit no doubt fed into Solow's negative assessment of the man, but we are inclined to concur with Solow's defense of NBC. We do so because: (1) NBC's treatment of Star Trek mostly accorded with dominant practices; and (2) NBC's occasional departure from those dominant practices led to Star Trek's later success. NBC's commissioning a second pilot got the show on the air; it's keeping the show on the air, in the face of disappointing ratings, resulted in just enough episodes for the syndication success that jump-started the Star Trek phenomenon. Just as there would have been no Star Trek without Solow, or someone like him, there would have been no Star Trek phenomenon without NBC, or a network like it. Star Trek was conceived in the mind of Gene Roddenberry but was incubated and came to maturity in accord with the dominant practices and assumptions of the classic network era.

The network had not failed Star Trek, according to those assumptions and practices; Star Trek had failed the network, consistently running over budget, despite Roddenberry's assurances of production practicality, and consistently delivering low ratings. True to form, the seventy-ninth and final episode, "Turnabout Intruder," exceeded its budget by six thousand dollars and its shooting schedule by a day. The last shot, taken at 11:30 at night, was not followed by the traditional season-end wrap party, for there was nothing to celebrate. Increased budgetary constraints imposed by the studio in the hope of decreasing its losses, the departure of several key figures, among them Solow and Justman, and Roddenberry's stepping down from the executive producer role had resulted in a season of twenty-four episodes that fell far short of the show's initial promise. The Enterprise had crash-landed; its triumphant relaunch in a feature film a decade in the future would have seemed as wildly improbable that final night as the most fantastical Star Trek plot. In Solow's words, "At the time of the series' cancellation, any Paramount executive . . . who predicted there could ever be Star Trek profits would have been immediately incarcerated in the nearest asylum for the severely insane." Solow speaks of Paramount executives because Desilu had been acquired by Gulf + Western in 1967. The company had also acquired Paramount Pictures, and as a result Desilu became Paramount Television.

"A Huge Asset of the Company"

In 2002, Paramount executive Kerry McCluggage, then president of Paramount Pictures Television, told us of Star Trek, "It is a huge asset of the company. If you were to separate out the value of that brand, that would be certainly in excess of a billion dollars, just on its own. It has meant over ten movies. We're on now the fifth iteration of a television series. So add all that up, and the merchandising and books and fan clubs, and it's a multi-billion-dollar industry, just in and of itself. So, it is very important to the overall profitability of Paramount and its parent company, Viacom."

WhenNBCcanceled TOS in 1969, Star Trek was not "a huge asset" but had in fact been losing money for both Paramount and NBC because of high production costs and low ratings. The show's prime-time performance indicated that the chances of Paramount's making up even its initial outlay, let alone a profit, in syndication were not good. When UPN canceled Enterprise in 2005, Paramount was potentially losing a huge asset, since the television show was meant to be a continuation of the money-spinning franchise that Star Trek had become. A studio press release at the time said: "All of us at Paramount warmly bid goodbye to Enterprise and we all look forward to a new chapter of this enduring franchise in the future." Paramount had too great an investment in the Enterprise to leave it in dry dock; it released that "new chapter," the first entry in the rebooted film series, in 2009, only four years after the last television series went off the air. The next section explains how Star Trek became a huge asset, in the process turning into one of the most atypical television programs ever made.

Star Trek and the Multichannel Era

Some New Yorkers may first have seen Captain Kirk not on a television screen but in an advertisement for a television. On Wednesday, August 24, 1966, the day before Star Trek's first-ever TV appearance as part of an NBC fall-season preview night, the New York Times ran an advertisement that touted three of the "full color" network's new shows and the new Magnavox color television, available from Macy's department store. Tarzan (Banner Productions, 1966-69) would deliver tigers, elephants, and Cheetah the Chimp; The Hero (Talent Associates, 1966-67), an actor smoothly gunning down the bad guys on a movie set; and Star Trek, "exciting missions to worlds beyond imagination." The twenty-one-inch Magnavox color TV console would deliver a "265 sq. in. viewable area," "automatic degausser," and "automatic gain control"-all for the price of $459.50 (worth $3,052.83 in 2010). A montage photo included images of all three new series, but the screen on the product photo showed a medium close-up of William Shatner as the heroic Enterprise captain.

On April 22, 1968, two months after NBC responded to fan protests by renewing Star Trek for a third season, the New York Times ran another Macy's advertisement mentioning the program: "Imagine yourself luxuriating in a bath of bubbles, martini in hand, television tuned into Star Trek." This might sound "out of this world," but the new Pearlw