Faithful fans almost stopped The Waltons from ending in 1981
Earl Hamner, Jr. said he would’ve stuck around to do more episodes. If only.
In 1981, The Waltons was in the middle of a new season when CBS suddenly announced in January that the episodes airing that year would comprise the family drama’s final season.
The show’s ninth season had just premiered a few months prior to the announcement, and faithful fans were just starting to tune back in to catch up with The Waltons.
The announcement shocked fans, but the network’s decision came after The Waltons had spent years on a gradual descent from the top of the TV ratings. The show had dipped from No. 2 in its second season, down to the nation’s No. 42 show by its ninth.
It seemed like a done deal for The Waltons.
But then, all of a sudden, the month after CBS made their announcement, The Waltons shot back up in the ratings. Jumping up from No. 42, the show held solid week to week above the No. 14 slot.
CBS was reportedly shocked, but The Waltons creator Earl Hamner, Jr. was not.
"We have a very faithful audience and they’ve always come back to us," Hamner told The Orlando Sentinel in 1981. "So, I wasn’t surprised by the ratings, just delighted."
The Sentinel reported that CBS couldn’t ignore the surge in ratings, and in February 1981, actually started waffling on their decision to cancel The Waltons.
"CBS suddenly is talking about waiting to see if the upswing continues until April," the Sentinel reported, "before officially issuing a cancellation notice."
In the story, the reporter praised The Waltons for keeping it fresh no matter the ratings, summing up the appeal to fans, should the network decide to let the show go on:
"The Waltons is not a static show. Time goes by. Characters age and change, and because they do this against the backdrop of real historical events, new thematic possibilities are always opening up."
Hamner agreed, saying that if enough viewers kept tuning in that he would be willing to stick around and write more episodes of The Waltons for as long as the network would have him.
He predicted the show’s faithful fans would keep the ratings high and then CBS would have no choice but to renew.
"It will be good business to keep it on," Hamner said.
Unfortunately, nothing could stop the show from ending after the ninth season’s final episode "The Revel," which became the series finale.
A TV critic for the Associated Press spoke for all faithful fans when he wrote a column saying he didn’t know what to do with his suddenly wide-open Thursday nights.
"I am, and have been for nine years, addicted to The Waltons," wrote Peter J. Boyer.
He said he had followed the show from the moment the TV movie debuted, watching every Tuesday until the show was switched to Thursdays, and then when the show switched days, he simply rearranged his schedule to tune in then.
He was so serious about The Waltons, he refused to make plans because there was "a TV show I want to watch."
Explaining why he would never miss an episode, Boyer wrote, "The fictional Walton’s mountain, its air thick with moralistic homilies, beckoned anew each season."
After the network cancelled The Waltons, it marked the end of an era on TV, as the Eighties ushered in more action-packed shows and very few earnest family dramas.
At the end of "The Revel," Hamner said a begrudging goodbye to his faithful fans, delivering lines in his closing narration that were meant to strike home one last time:
"I hope that you'll remember this house as I do. The mystical blue ridges that stretch beyond it into infinity; the sound of warm voices drifting out upon the night air; a family waiting, and a light in the window. Good night."
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That's a GRUDGING (adverb) goodbye, not begrudging (verb).
Richard Thomas and Michael Learned it was time to say good night to the series. They got lucky with the new John Boy and extended the series for a short while afterwards.