Half of a Sixth: THE SIXTH SENSE & the NIGHT GALLERY Syndication Package
By John C. Alsedek:
It’s November 1977, a Friday night right around Thanksgiving. I’m at my grandparents’ house during the holiday break, which means no bedtime, which means I’m still up at midnight. The TV is tuned to WKBS, Channel 48, broadcasting from the Roxborough tower farm in Philadelphia. And then the show I’ve been waiting for starts: Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Back then, Night Gallery was a special, spooky treat reserved for holidays and summers, as it was on weeknights at midnight. So, you can imagine how excited I was to see what tale of terror awaited me. However, that excitement was short-lived as host Rod Serling said the three words I dreaded more than any other.
Doctor. Michael. Rhodes.
“Damnit!” I thought. “It’s one of those stupid Gary Collins episodes!” I had fallen prey yet again to the Night Gallery syndication package.
What the hell am I talking about? Well, let me explain: when Night Gallery was canceled by NBC in 1973, only 43 one-hour episodes had been produced—far too few for Universal Television to release it in a syndication package (otherwise, stations would be rerunning episodes too quickly). So Universal made two moves to get the number of eps available up above 100. First, they took the hour-long shows and turned them into half-hour shows. It was theoretically possible given that each hour was made up of several shorter segments; however, there were segments that were too long to combine with something else but too short to air as a standalone. That’s where things got iffy, for those segments were re-edited to add filler—and not just deleted scenes, but stock/Universal library footage. The first example that comes to mind is "The Different Ones," which includes something like two minutes of random footage from films Fahrenheit 451 and This Island Earth. That was bad. But what Universal did next was even worse . . .
In 1972, ABC had aired a series called The Sixth Sense. It concerned Dr. Michael Rhodes (played by Gary Collins) a professor of parapsychology who was called in to help solve crimes and mysteries involving the supernatural. Despite some high-profile guest stars—including Joan Crawford in her final performance—The Sixth Sense did poorly in the ratings and was canceled on November 14th, 1972. With just 25 episodes produced, there was next to no chance of syndicating The Sixth Sense . . . until some bright boy at Universal came up with the idea of merging it into the Night Gallery syndication package. Rod Serling was brought back to shoot host sequences for the 25 episodes of The Sixth Sense, thereby bringing them into the fold, so to speak.
On the surface, it would seem to be a great idea. While The Sixth Sense wasn’t a horror program per se, most of the episodes did have enough suspenseful/horrific moments to keep it from being too jarring a change from the usual Night Gallery fare. And yet, they simply didn’t work. AT ALL. As a kid, I didn’t know that the Michael Rhodes episodes had come from an entirely different series; all I knew was that they were confusing and choppy, with characters appearing without introduction and disappearing without explanation. Getting a Michael Rhodes episode on the occasions I got to see Night Gallery was the equivalent of socks for Christmas. It was years later that I found out why they were so lousy—and that my disgust was totally misplaced.
When Universal Television added The Sixth Sense to the Night Gallery syndication package, they had one very basic issue to work out: how to make one-hour episodes of The Sixth Sense fit into their half-hour syndication format. Yes, Universal had already gone through this with the proper Night Gallery episodes, most of which were one-hour as well. But The Sixth Sense was a different animal: each hour episode focused on one story, rather than two or three like the hour-long Night Gallery shows. So, Universal had two ways it could have gone here. The most obvious (to me, anyway) would have been to split each episode into a two-parter; it would have required some sort of bridging and recap segments but would have had the benefit of doubling the number of episodes.
That isn’t the route Universal took. Instead, they took each one-hour The Sixth Sense episode and edited out half of it. HALF OF IT! HALF!!! No wonder the show made no sense to me as a kid. What’s really unfortunate is that I’ve since sat down and watched four or five original, uncut sixty-minute episodes of The Sixth Sense . . . and really enjoyed them! Gary Collins is a likeable, helpful protagonist; the stories themselves are well-constructed (no surprise, given that the writers included Harlan Ellison and D.C. Fontana) and cover a variety of paranormal subject matter; the guests stars (such as William Shatner, Lee Majors, the previously mentioned Joan Crawford, and Collins’ wife, Mary Ann Mobley) are all good; and there are some really unique special effects and camera shots. There is a certain sameness to the episodes due to the fact that virtually every one of them has an attractive, young, well-to-do white woman as the damsel-in-distress whom Dr. Rhodes has to rescue—this seems to have been the decision of show developer Stan Shpetner. Still, for occasional viewing, the uncut episodes of The Sixth Sense are good fun.
And speaking of Rod Serling (like I did at the beginning of this!), our next column will tell the story of Serling’s radio series, The Zero Hour. Until then, thanks for tuning in!