The NBC Mystery Movie

The NBC Mystery Movie is the umbrella title of an American television series produced by Universal Studios, that was broadcast by NBC from 1971 to 1977. 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
GenreMovie of the week
Theme music composerHenry Mancini
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
No. of episodes(list of episodes)
Running time90 min. (1971–1974, 1976–1977)
120 min. (1974–1976)
Original networkNBC
Original release1971 (1971) 
1977 (1977)
Related shows

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 increasing 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 shorter 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. However, by the early 1980s, various movie episodes from the former Mystery Movie series were rebroadcast on late night's CBS Late Movie as a package with an earlier half-hour situation comedy series rerun. While they lasted, the best of them employed the finest actors, writers and production standards available.

Production history

Inaugural programs

The three original 1971–1972 season shows of The NBC Mystery Movie were:

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 (1972–1974):

The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie programs


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

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., which was the next to last new Mystery Movie series to premiere, ended up outlasting the parent series itself; midway through the final Mystery Movie season, Quincy was taken out of the wheel lineup and retooled into a one-hour weekly series that ran for seven more seasons, coming to an end in 1983.

Although the Mystery Movie series was cancelled at the end of the 1976–1977 season, NBC kept Columbo in production and a seventh season consisting of five films premiered on November 21, 1977. After the fifth film aired in May 1978, NBC cancelled Columbo as well.


The Mystery Movie theme music was composed by Henry Mancini.

The opening credits consisted of a shadowed figure carrying a flashlight slowly walking toward the camera in a desert landscape under dramatically lit clouds, as images of the various rotating series appeared sequentially on the screen; at the end, an announcer (Hank Sims) presented the 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.


In 1989, Universal Television and ABC teamed to launch a revival of the mystery wheel, titled the ABC Monday Mystery Movie. The network brought back original Mystery Movie series Columbo to be part of the wheel, with Peter Falk returning in the title role. Two new series joined Columbo in its first year, Gideon Oliver, starring Louis Gossett, Jr. as a crime solving anthropologist, and B.L. Stryker, which featured Burt Reynolds as a South Florida private investigator.

Columbo and B.L. Stryker continued in the wheel's second season on Saturday (as ABC Saturday Mystery Movie) with two other series in August 1989: the new Christine Cromwell, a San Francisco based mystery starring Jaclyn Smith, and a revival of CBS' 1970s crime drama Kojak.[1] The wheel series ran irregularly from February 1989 until August 1990. After the ABC Saturday Mystery Movie ended, ABC kept Columbo in production and Falk starred in an additional fourteen episodes before the network discontinued the series in 2003.

NBC, meanwhile, brought McCloud back for a reunion film in 1989. The film, titled "The Return of Sam McCloud", featured Dennis Weaver in the role of United States Senator Sam McCloud.

Friday Night Mystery

In the fall of 1993, NBC made an attempt to revive the wheel format, this time called The NBC Friday Night Mystery. As originally conceived, this rotation was supposed to include:[2]

  • MacShayne starring Kenny Rogers as a gambler turned house detective to pay his debts
  • Hart to Hart, a revival starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers
  • Staying Afloat starring Larry Hagman as a former millionaire who becomes a jet-setting government operative;
  • Janek, a revival of the movie series (begun in 1988) starring Richard Crenna as New York City Police Lieutenant of Detectives Frank Janek
  • Cosby Mysteries, two telefilms starring Bill Cosby with plans to spin off into a regular series for the 1994 season
  • Perry Mason, a TV movies series continuing from its occasional stand alone basis[2]
With Perry Mason star Raymond Burr dying after filming only the first of six scheduled films for the series, NBC filmed a spin off movie starring Paul Sorvino as Frank Caruso, a close friend of Mason, with an option for one more.[3]
  • Ray Alexander was a late addition starring Louis Gossett Jr. as Ray Alexander, a detective-restaurateur, with co-stars James Coburn and Ossie Davis. This series' first installment, A Taste for Justice, was aired on May 13, 1994 with two more films planned.[4]
  • 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. Eventually, at the beginning of the episode "Teenagers from Outer Space", Joel has the robots in electrical shock therapy to try and break them of the habit.
  • A 2008 episode of The Simpsons, "Dial 'N' for Nerder", ended with a reference to the NBC Mystery Movie opening sequence, featuring Nelson Muntz as Columbo, Dr. Hibbert as Quincy, Rich Texan as McCloud and Mr. Burns and Smithers as McMillan and Wife.
  • 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

NBC Mystery Movie maintained 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[5] 14,40
The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie 1972–1973 #6[6] 15,68
The NBC Saturday Mystery Movie 1973–1974 #14[7] 14,69
The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie 1974–1975 #24[8] 14,59
The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie 1975–1976 N/A[9] N/A
The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie 1976–1977 #53[10] 12,76
ABC Mystery Movie 1988–1989 #29[11] 13,92

See also


  1. Brooks, Tim; Marsh, Earle F. (2009). The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. Random House Publishing Group. p. 4. ISBN 9780307483201. Retrieved February 3, 2018.
  2. Lawler, Sylvia (May 23, 1993). "Nbc Aims To Reverse The Trend". The Morning Call. Tribune Publishing. p. 2. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  3. "Nbc Plans New Perry Mason Movie". Orlando Sentinel. Tribune Publishing. Washington Post. September 27, 1993. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  4. KING, SUSAN (May 8, 1994). "Focus : Gossett, P.I. : NBC Movie Offers a Detective With Charm Around The Edges". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 2, 2018.
  5. "". Retrieved May 14, 2012.
  6. "". Retrieved May 14, 2012.
  7. "". Retrieved May 14, 2012.
  8. "Top Rated Programs - 1985/90". July 26, 2002. Retrieved May 14, 2012.
  9. "". Retrieved May 14, 2012.
  10. "". Retrieved May 14, 2012.
  11. "". Retrieved May 14, 2012.
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