Adam West, the caped crusader “Batman” who helped change the ratings fortunes of ABC and WFTV-Channel 9 in the mid-1960s, died Friday night at age 88. His family said in a statement that West passed after “a short but brave battle with leukemia.”
West is best known as TV’s “Batman,” and the show’s three-season run made a huge impact across the nation and here in Central Florida on Channel 9.
“Batman” premiered on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 1966, at 7:30 p.m. on Channel 9 — right before “The Patty Duke Show” and on the same night President Johnson delivered his State of the Union address. In the first episode, according to an Orlando Sentinel description, “Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) go after the diabolical Riddler (Frank Gorshin).”
The show aired twice a week, on Wednesdays with a cliff-hanger ending, and then on Thursdays, with the episode conclusion. In a preview written by Orlando Sentinel TV writer Sandra Hinson, she noted, “The production staff has gone all out to make the show appeal to adults as well as the eight to 14-year-old action set. ‘This is merchandising medium, not an entertainment medium,’ said producer William Dozier, explaining why he decided to apply the pop art technique of the exaggerated cliche, laying it on to the point where it becomes amusing to adults.”
The next day, Hinson wasn’t too kind in her review of the premiere. “The lines were so stiff you could practically draw cartoon-type bubbles around them,” she wrote. “The acting was terrible — but that’s probably because of the lines. Batman is so square, so preposterously unbelievable, he really is — as the promoters promoted — quite funny.”
But she also was a bit prophetic about the show. “It was, indeed, so overdrawn, so ‘camp,’ so way-out that it may get to be ‘in’ — at least for a little while. … The fun may wear thin after a while, but by that time the show will have attracted its basic younger-set audience,” she wrote.
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“Batman” rocketed to the top of the ratings, becoming the No. 1 show for the week ending Feb. 13, 1966 (Thursday’s airing was No. 1; Wednesday’s was No. 5). It also helped boost ABC to the top of Nielsens, albeit briefly.
Batmania took the nation — and Central Florida — by storm.
Two months into its run, there was an emergency involving the Gemini 8 space mission during TV’s prime time, which resulted in an early splash down for the astronauts. CBS and NBC pre-empted their regularly scheduled programs to follow the news; ABC remained with “Batman,” although the network did interrupt the show with news bulletins about the space emergency, drawing the ire of Batfans.
During 1966, you could fine plenty of ads in the Sentinel for all sorts of Batmerchandise — Batman shirts, carpets, masks and records. Perhaps the most unusual was for a Daytona Beach club — Batman’s Neptune A Go-Go Bat Cave — that took on a Batman theme.
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But, as Hinson predicted, West’s “Batman” series faded quickly. By its third season, it was down to just one episode a week (despite the addition of new character “Batgirl.”) The show’s last original episode aired on WFTV on March 14, 1968.