Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Umbrella TV Series of the 1970s: The Saga of The Bold Ones, the NBC Mystery Movie, and Others

In 1955, U.S television launched one of its most interesting experiments: the umbrella series, in which different TV shows were rotated in the same time slot under a single title. The original umbrella series was Warner Bros. Presents, in which the TV shows Cheyenne, Casablanca, and King’s Row were all shown in the same time slot. The only one of the three to be renewed was Cheyenne, the Clint Walker Western that evolved into a launch pad for other TV series. The umbrella series concept seemed to die a swift death.

However, it was revived unexpectedly in 1969 when NBC borrowed the format for The Bold Ones—which was three separate series linked only by the fact that (apparently) the protagonists were bold! The rotating shows were The New Doctors (with John Saxon, David Hartman, and E.G. Marshall), The Lawyers (Burl Ives, Joseph Campanella, and James Farentino), and The Law Enforcers (with Leslie Nielsen and Hari Rhodes). The last series performed poorly and was replaced the following year with The Senator, starring Hal Holbrook as an idealistic politician. For the third year, only The New Doctors and The Lawyers were retained. In its final season, The Bold Ones consisted only of its three physicians, even though the umbrella title was still used.

In 1970, NBC introduced the umbrella series Four in One. This time, there was no attempt to connect the separate shows even loosely. Each series consisted of six episodes shown back-to-back…and then the next series would start. The four shows were: McCloud (with Dennis Weaver); San Francisco International Airport (with Lloyd Bridges); Night Gallery (hosted by Rod Serling); and The Psychiatrist (with Roy Thinnes). The advantage of the format was that each series got a limited try-out. It worked out well for Night Gallery, which was renewed and given its own time slot, and McCloud, which moved to The NBC Mystery Movie the following year. The downside to the format was that viewers didn’t have time to get invested in a series before the next one started. As a result, Four in One was deemed a failure.

That didn’t stop NBC from continuing to experiment with the umbrella series concept. In 1971, it launched the most successful of all umbrella series: The NBC Mystery Movie. In its original form, this 90-minutes series consisted of three shows: the previously mentioned McCloud; Columbo (starring Peter Falk); and McMillan & Wife (with Rock Hudson and Susan St. James). The NBC Mystery Movie was a hit from the start and finished among the Top 15 TV series in its first year. Realizing it had a lucrative franchise on its hands, NBC tried to add a fourth show to the original three and eventually expanded to a second night of mysteries with The NBC Wednesday Night Mystery Movie. Alas, detectives came and went quickly, including: Richard Boone as Western detective in Hec Ramsey; Tony Curtis as a con man detective in McCoy; James Farentino as an expensive detective in Cool Million; James McEachin as an African-American family man detective in Tenafly; and Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as The Snoop Sisters. The only segments that really clicked were Banacek (with George Peppard as an insurance investigator) and Quincy, M.E. starring Jack Klugman. They each earned their own time slots, though Quincy was the far more successful of the two.

The success of the mystery movie prompted ABC and CBS to develop their own umbrella series—although neither was successful. ABC’s attempt was The Men (love that title!), a 1972 one-season wonder consisting of Assignment: Vienna (with Robert Conrad); The Delphi Bureau (with Laurence Luckenbill); and Jigsaw (with James Wainwright). CBS opted to go with big-name stars with the 1973 New CBS Tuesday Night Movie. Each month, CBS showed two original made-for-TV movies and then one episode each of Hawkins and Shaft. The former series starred James Stewart as a “countrified” crafty lawyer. In the latter series, Richard Roundtree reprised his film role as private eye John Shaft (the violence displayed in the movies was toned down considerably for the small screen).

Except for the NBC Mystery Movie, the umbrella series faded quickly. There were attempts to revive the format in 1979 with Cliffhangers (an innovative experiment worthy of its own article) and NBC Novels for Television (which were basically miniseries…not unlike PBS’s long-running Masterpiece Theater and Mystery!). Unfortunately, the business side of TV production killed the concept. It was simply cheaper to produce one series with a regular cast and standing sets than to multiply those costs by two or three. Variety may be the spice of life, but on television, it can be expensive!


  1. Rick, this was an incredibly intriguing article. I had never heard of the umbrella series, nor did I know that popular shows like COLUMBO and NIGHT GALLERY were originally part of such an experimental broadcast. Honestly, it sounds like a wonderful concept, but while I would love to see something like that today, I can also see the downside, e.g. getting hooked onto a show that's quickly gone. It'd be especially bad for me because I tend to like the shows that are sacked. So my faves would fade away, and the others would stick around, and I'd spend an exorbitant amount of time complaining about the shows that survived beyond the umbrella. I loved learning about the umbrella series, so thank you, Rick!

  2. You have taken me on an unusual walk down memory lane, and I'm still reeling. I had forgotten about several of the umbrella shows, as well as the concepts behind them, and it was great to be reminded of so much that I used to enjoy. The ultimate shows that stuck with me were Night Gallery, McCloud, The Doctors, The Lawyers and the Snoop Sisters. I've always been a sucker for scary shows like Night Gallery (and Twilight Zone and Outer Limits), lawyer shows (like The Defenders), doctor shows (like Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey), and little old lady detectives (like Miss Marple as played by Margaret Rutherford). As for McCloud, I don't know what made me like the cowboy detective, but I did. You did a wonderful job pulling together the history of the origin and evental fate of these shows, putting them under sort of -- well, what's the word -- OH, UMBRELLA! Very clever use of umbrella as both description and writing tool. Great job, Rick, and thanks for the memories!

  3. Very interesting article, Rick. I also hadn't heard of the umbrella series until reading your article. It reminds me of my favorite show of the 2008-2009 season: "Life on Mars". Of course, today it seems like networks don't want to develop new shows at all unless they are reality shows or a new take on an old formula like Law and Order or CSI.

  4. Rick, this was a very informative post. I was not surprised to see your closing line, though, because the expense would indeed be a major factor in continuing the umbrella concept. Great job!

  5. Thanks for the comments! I neglected to mention that this format was also called a "wheel series." A variation was a series where the stars rotated, with each one starring (usually solo) in an episode in a revolving pattern. THE NAME OF THE GAME was about a big publication company. One week, the episode would be about the publisher Gene Barry. The next week, it'd be about crime magazine editor Robert Stack. The cycle would end with an episode about reporter Tony Franciosa. Other shows using this format were SEARCH and THE MEN FROM SHILOH (a revamped version of THE VIRGINIAN).