Fred Silverman was a huge part of CBS’ early-1970s “relevant programming” push. At ABC he destroyed CBS’ claim to network supremacy with escapist fare. As an independent producer, he appealed to seniors with Matlock, the Perry Mason films and Diagnosis Murder. NBC is his only tangible career low, Supertrain being the white whale that almost ate the peacock network*.
Supertrain was based on the notion that cloning The Love Boat – a show Silverman helped champion at ABC – would be enough of a concept to hang a series on. His career highs were the result of exploiting niches, yet he didn’t do that while at NBC.
In fact, NBC seemed to be throwing anything on the air that would attract an audience. In 1978-79, NBC was banking on Grandpa Goes to Washington, Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday and two nights of The Big Event. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Rockford Files, Saturday Night Live and a few other programs held the network together with glue and toilet paper. NBC is not that badly run today.
Make or Break TV goes through the obvious Supertrain talking points in entertaining fashion. The interviewees don’t sound exciting on paper – writer Brad Radnitz, actor Joey Aresco, producer Curtis Spinner, plus executives Robert Singer and Joseph Stern. They all give entertaining behind-the-scenes stories, which stuns the hell out of me.
The interviewees paint Dan Curtis as a bit of an asshole here. He was a control freak, which allowed him to make a small fortune off Dark Shadows and contributed to his success. He was a big reason why Supertrain failed – his mystery plots didn’t mesh with Fred Silverman’s ideal of a Love Boat clone, and it’s not like he was paying attention to Supertrain‘s runaway budget.
All the same, it’s hard to install Curtis as the reason for the show’s failure. Supertrain was the very definition of “polished turd.” The show was rushed onto the production schedule before anyone knew the form the show was going to take. In addition, the show was placed in the unfathomable position of “saving” NBC. Since when does one show negate hours upon hours of crap?
Make or Break TV implies that Supertrain was the reason Fred Silverman resigned from NBC in 1981, which is simplistic at best. Supertrain was just one of the many high-profile bombs NBC dropped during Silverman’s tenure, including Hello, Larry, Pink Lady and Jeff, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo/Lobo, Mrs. Columbo/Kate Columbo/Kate Loves a Mystery and The Big Show. Even when Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff began to rebuild the network in 1981, NBC still greenlighted bombs like Manimal and Mr. Smith.
This is the best episode of Make or Break TV, which is bittersweet as the show likely won’t receive a second season. Make Believe Media’s Lynn Booth admitted as much in an e-mail she sent me. Hopefully Make or Break TV will receive a DVD set, but I’m not expecting it. At least the show finished its run, which is more than I can say for My Own Worst Enemy and the new Knight Rider.
As a special bonus, here’s ten minutes of Express to Terror, the “film version” of Supertrain. Prism Entertainment put this video out in the late 1980s. It looks great on one’s shelf next to Desert Warrior, Almost Human and Curse of the Living Corpse.
*Bizarrely, the official NBC logo didn’t feature a peacock until the fall of 1979, when Fred Silverman slapped a peacock onto the Big N logo of 1975. Incidentally, the Big N reportedly cost $600,000 to develop.
Silverman based NBC’s 1979-80 fall campaign around the peacock. Thanks to campaigns like “Proud as a Peacock,” the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and shows like Pink Lady and Jeff, NBC almost went bankrupt. Go figure.
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