The NBC Mystery Movie

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The NBC Mystery Movie
Genre Movie of the week
Theme music composer Henry Mancini
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
Running time 90 min. (1971-1974, 1976-1977)
120 min. (1974-1976)
Original network NBC
Original release 1971 – 1977
Related shows

The NBC Mystery Movie is the umbrella title of an American television series produced by Universal Studios, that was broadcast by NBC from 1971-77. At times, it was divided into two versions that were broadcast concurrently during different nights of the week: The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie and The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie.

The NBC Mystery Movie was a "wheel show", or "umbrella program" that rotated several programs within the same time period throughout the season. For its initial 1971-72 season, it featured a rotation of three detective dramas that were broadcast on Wednesday nights for 90 minutes, from 8:30-10:00 p.m. in the Eastern Time Zone.


The origin of the "wheel" format was a joint programming and creative production agreement between the NBC Television Network and Universal Studios Television and Motion Pictures dating from 1966. By that agreement, NBC ordered a multi-year series of dramatic anthology productions from Universal which would be broadcast as NBC series television programming in the United States (both as originals and re-runs), while Universal retained the rights to overseas release of these products as feature-length films. Also, NBC would not offer these shows subsequently as TV re-runs for international sales.

The first series created under this agreement was The Name of the Game, a drama with three rotating stars. It was followed by The Bold Ones and Four in One (the similar The Men was produced for ABC and involved series from three studios, although one of them was Universal). While it was a long and profitable collaboration, it finally succumbed to the changes of the commercial broadcast market regarding both structure and content by the end of the decade.

By the late 1970s, the increase in the popularity of situation comedies, coupled with their lower production costs and much greater scheduling flexibility and resale opportunities, surpassed that of these feature-length (90 - 120 minute) drama anthologies. The anthologies could not reasonably be reduced for briefer broadcast times for the re-run market. They were not designed for casual or short-term viewers, who would have little interest in the characters or the story of an individual episode. Each episode and each series were of widely varying quality, making package re-sale difficult. While they lasted, the best of them employed the finest actors, writers and production standards available.[citation needed]

Production history[edit]

The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie program worked on a rotating basis - one per month from each of its shows. Top left: Dennis Weaver in McCloud. Top right: Richard Boone in Hec Ramsey. Bottom left: Peter Falk in Columbo. Bottom right: Rock Hudson in McMillan & Wife.

Inaugural programs[edit]

The three original 1971-72 shows of The NBC Mystery Movie were:

  • Columbo, starring Peter Falk as a deceptively bumbling Los Angeles homicide detective. The series was derived from a 1968 made-for-television movie, Prescription: Murder, which starred Falk in the same role.

The umbrella series was counted a great success in its first season and finished at number 14 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1971-1972 season. Columbo was nominated for eight Emmy Awards and won four categories. This success prompted NBC to move the series to the competitive 8:30-10:00 Sunday evening time period for the second season as The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. In addition, a fourth show was added to the rotation, lasting two seasons (1972–74):

The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie programs[edit]


NBC also launched a clone of the umbrella series, The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie, which debuted in the original time period and featured three new programs:


During the 1973-1974 season, the programs rotating on Sunday remained the same, while on Wednesday, Cool Million and Madigan were canceled and Banacek rotated with three new series:

Rescheduling to Tuesday nights as The NBC Tuesday Mystery Movie during January 1974 was not enough to help boost ratings, and the midweek series was canceled. The Sunday series continued, anchored by the popular trio of Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife.

Later changes[edit]

During subsequent years. these rotated with a fourth series, which changed each year (1972 - 1977), including:

Of all the wheel series, only the original three – Columbo, McCloud and McMillan & Wife – survived for the entire run of the Mystery Movie. Most of the others were very short-lived, and, with the exception of Hec Ramsey and Banacek, were all only on the air for one season. Quincy, M.E. proved to be such a hit that NBC spun it off into its own weekly series midway through the final Mystery Movie season, the only Mystery Movie series to receive this honor; the spin-off series ran until 1983.


The Mystery Movie theme music was composed by Henry Mancini.

The opening credits consisted of a mysterious figure carrying a flashlight slowly walking toward the camera in a desert landscape under dramatic clouds, as images representing the various rotating series appeared sequentially on the screen; at the end, an announcer (Hank Sims) presented that night's main actors and series (example: "Tonight, starring Peter Falk as Columbo"). Some syndicated episodes of Columbo retain this opening credit sequence, though slowed toward the end to avoid showing the title caption which includes "NBC" and (after the first season), a day of the week.

The Wednesday Mystery Movie theme was composed by Quincy Jones for its first season and had an animated open to show the lineup. The tune was very uptempo and the open did not look at all like that of the Sunday Mystery Movie.


ABC launched a revival of the mystery wheel, titled the ABC Mystery Movie, which lasted from February 1989 to August 1990. Columbo returned as part of ABC's revival, along with a revival of Kojak and three new series: B.L. Stryker, Gideon Oliver, and Christine Cromwell (starring Jaclyn Smith).

After the ABC Mystery Movie ended its run, a further fourteen Columbo TV movies were broadcast between 1990 and 2003. McCloud was also revived for one TV movie, The Return of Sam McCloud, in November 1989.

In the fall of 1993, NBC made an attempt to revive the wheel format, this time called The NBC Friday Night Mystery.[1] As originally conceived, this rotation was supposed to include the MacShayne series, with Kenny Rogers; Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers in a reprise of the Hart to Hart series; Larry Hagman in Staying Afloat, as a bankrupt millionaire who becomes a jet-setting government operative; Richard Crenna as New York City Police Lieutenant of Detectives Frank Janek, continuing a series of films that had begun in 1988; and Bill Cosby's first few Cosby Mysteries. A late addition was Louis Gossett Jr. as Ray Alexander.[2] None of these series aired more than a handful of installments, unlike the 1970s wheel wherein Columbo, for example, aired around eight episodes per season. One major component of the wheel was slated to be the Perry Mason series of TV movies that had begun in 1985 and had aired on an occasional basis ever since. Perry Mason star Raymond Burr died after filming only the first of six scheduled films for the wheel series, although NBC aired a few more films starring either Paul Sorvino or Hal Holbrook as lawyers who were friends of Mason.[3]

Rerun history[edit]

Reruns of some episodes of the Wednesday and Sunday Mystery Movies were previously seen as part of The CBS Late Movie, beginning in January 1975, with Banacek being the first of the series to be repeated. In addition, Columbo, Banacek, McCloud, Quincy M.E. and McMillan and Wife have also been seen in syndication in the past and still do air on various stations from time to time. As of 2014, VisionTV in Canada broadcasts Columbo episodes each Thursday night at 9:00 pm.

Me-TV currently airs five of the Mystery Movie series. Columbo airs on Sunday nights as the only part of the network's Sunday "Catch Me if you Can" crime series block to remain as of September 6, 2015. "Quincy, M.E." airs weekdays as part of its midday "CriMeTV" block with Perry Mason, Matlock and The Rockford Files. McCloud, McMillan and Wife, and Banacek (as well as Columbo) are all part of the "MeTV Mystery Movie" lineup, which is set up in the same manner as the original wheel series with the difference being that the featured series airs five times over the course of a week.

In popular culture[edit]

  • The cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 would often make a recurring joke ("It's The NBC Mystery Movie!") whenever a character in a movie shone a flashlight.
  • In an episode of the cartoon King of the Hill, Hank Hill refers to Hec Ramsey as an under-appreciated part of the NBC Mystery Wheel.

U.S. television ratings[edit]

NBC Mystery Movie maintained extremely high ratings finishing in the top 30 of shows for the first four seasons. The show rated as the following:

Television ratings
Show TV season Rank Households
The NBC Mystery Movie 1971-1972 #14[4] 14,40
The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie 1972-1973 #6[5] 15,68
The NBC Saturday Mystery Movie 1973-1974 #14[6] 14,69
The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie 1974-1975 #24[7] 14,59
The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie 1975-1976 N/A[8] N/A
The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie 1976-1977 N/A[9] N/A
ABC Mystery Movie 1988-1989 #29[10] 13,92


  1. ^ The Morning Call (May 23, 1993)
  2. ^ LA Times (May 08, 1994)
  3. ^ Orlando Sentinel
  4. ^ "". Retrieved May 14, 2012. 
  5. ^ "". Retrieved May 14, 2012. 
  6. ^ "". Retrieved May 14, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Top Rated Programs - 1985/90". July 26, 2002. Retrieved May 14, 2012. 
  8. ^ "". Retrieved May 14, 2012. 
  9. ^ "". Retrieved May 14, 2012. 
  10. ^ "". Retrieved May 14, 2012. 

External links[edit]