‘Bonanza’ Had to Make Drastic Budget Decisions to Avoid Being Cancelled in Season 1

by Joe Rutland

Imagine “Bonanza” not making it out of the first season the NBC western was on the air. Well, it almost happened due to budget issues.

Thomas Sarnoff, who was Executive Vice President for NBC’s West Coast division between 1965-77, had to deal with the issues himself. According to Sarnoff, who is the son of radio pioneer David Sarnoff, a cancellation was in the wind for the Ponderosa.

“New York decided it was going to cancel it after the first 13 episodes because we were over budget,” Sarnoff said in an interview with the Archive of American Television. “Our budget for ‘Bonanza’ in color was $105,000 per episode for the first year. “Think about it. Five thousand dollars for an hour of film and you think in terms of what NBC is paying today for ‘ER,’ which is $13 million an episode.

NBC Received Guarantee That ‘Bonanza’ Would Be On Budget From Sarnoff

“That means that one episode of ‘ER’ costs as much as three or four years of ‘Bonanza,’” Sarnoff said. “ER” was on NBC between 1994-2009. “So we were told that we were $13,000 over budget after the first 13.”

Sarnoff said he guaranteed New York network executives that “Bonanza” would be on budget by the end of the year.

“We did 39 episodes in those days and David Dotort, who was our producer, was very good at watching budgets,” he said. “We had a very good production department at our West Coast operations.

Western Finished Under Cash Target, Gets Rewarded With Sponsor And New Time

“We did come under budget and when ‘Bonanza’ was moved to the 9 o’clock Sunday time period, it was sponsored by Chevrolet and immediately shot up and became No. 1 rating on all the shows on all the networks for four or five years,” he said.

Because the show under Sarnoff’s watch did make budget, “Bonanza” was rewarded with a winning time slot. Having a major automobile maker like Chevrolet sponsor your show back in the day mattered, too.

Sarnoff remains alive today in retirement at 94 years old. He’s also chairman emeritus of the Television Academy Foundation.

“Bonanza” ended up being a major factor in NBC’s success throughout the show’s 14-season run. Stars like Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, Dan Blocker, and Pernell Roberts made it “must-see TV” for sure. In fact, the NBC western holds the mark for the second-longest-running original western TV show. Obviously, CBS’s “Gunsmoke” is No. 1 at 20 seasons.

Nevertheless, thanks to Sarnoff’s work and to that of the show’s production staff, the nearly pink-slipped show stayed on NBC.