Little House on the Prairie is one of the most beloved television series of all time and is based on the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder which were published between 1932 and 1943. In an interesting note, Wilder originally set out to write an autobiography aimed at an adult audience but couldn’t find a publisher, so she ended up using the material from her autobiography to write the Little House books.
Bringing Little House to Television
Walt Disney expressed interest in bringing the Little House books to television as far back as the 1950s, but his production people convinced him that the books were too complicated to be made into a television series. In the early 1970s, Ed Friendly became interested in bringing Little House to television when he came home one day and found his teenage daughter reading the books.
Friendly contacted Roger MacBride who held the rights to the Little House books. MacBride had met family friend Rose Wilder Lane when he was 14 and considered her his “adoptive grandmother.” He eventually became her attorney and business manager after many years of friendship and inherited the rights to the Little House books when she died in 1968.
MacBride liked that Friendly wanted to stick closely to the books and they reached a deal after having dinner together in Hollywood. Friendly went through a couple screenwriters before he finally had a script for the pilot that he was happy with. He approached CBS with the finished script in 1973, but they already had The Waltons and didn’t want another rural show.
Friendly then contacted Michael Landon and asked him if he would direct the pilot movie should any network end up expressing interest. Landon had starred in Bonanza until it was cancelled in 1972. He was under contract to do another series for NBC, but didn’t like any of the ideas they had come up with. He read the pilot script, had his children read the books and then told Friendly he would like to direct and play the father, Charles Ingalls. Friendly agreed and said NBC probably wouldn’t have been interested without Landon’s involvement.
Karen Grassle, Melissa Gilbert, and Melissa Sue Anderson were cast as Caroline, Laura, and Mary Ingalls, while Carrie Ingalls was played by twins, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush. Last but not least, Victor French played Mr. Edwards and turned in a memorable performance in the pilot movie. The movie was filmed in January 1974 and broadcast on March 30, 1974 as the NBC Saturday movie of the week. It drew great ratings and was picked up as a series on NBC’s fall schedule.
Friendly wanted to stick to the books while Landon wanted to use dramatic license to make the series more appealing to a television audience, so a rift developed between the two. NBC sided with Landon who was given complete creative control while Friendly and MacBride retained ownership of the television rights. Friendly later claimed their differences weren’t that great and said the biggest issue was that he wanted Mary to go blind at the end of the first season.
The Nielsen ratings decide how much advertisers are willing to pay for a thirty second commercial slot during a broadcast and often determine whether a television series is cancelled or not. I posted as much as I could below about where Little House finished in the ratings for each season and episode. If there is an “na”, I couldn’t find any ratings information for that week. If it says “not in top 10” or “not in top 20”, I found a top 10 or top 20 list for that week and Little House didn’t make the list.
The pilot movie finished third in the ratings for the week and at the time was the 44th most watched movie ever shown on television. This was during a time period when theatrical movies drew huge ratings on television.
|3/30/1974||Little House on the Prairie||3|
Season 1 (#13)
The first episode was broadcast on Wednesday, September 11, 1974 at 8 PM Eastern Time and Little House remained in the 8 PM Wednesday time slot for the first two seasons. It was an immediate hit, regularly finishing in the top 20 in the weekly Nielsen ratings and finishing number 13 for the 1974-75 season.
|9/11/1974||A Harvest of Friends||9|
|9/25/1974||100 Mile Walk||na|
|10/2/1974||Mr. Edward’s Homecoming||na|
|10/9/1974||The Love of Johnny Johnson||9|
|10/23/1974||If I Should Wake Before I Die||na|
|10/30/1974||Town Party-Country Party||na|
|12/4/1974||The Voice of Tinker Jones||na|
|12/18/1974||The Lord Is My Shepherd (Two Hours)||na|
|12/25/1974||Christmas at Plum Creek||na|
|2/12/1975||Child of Pain||14|
|3/5/1975||To See the World||na|
Season 2 (Not in top 30)
Season two got off to a good start and Little House was well on its way to another top 20 finish in the Nielsen ratings until ABC cancelled When Things Were Rotten and That’s My Mama. ABC’s mid-season replacement for those cancelled shows was The Bionic Woman which debuted opposite of Little House on Wednesday January 14, 1976. By the end of February, it had taken a huge chunk of Little House’s audience causing Little House to regularly finish outside of the top 40 in the weekly ratings. The Bionic Woman ended up finishing number 5 for the 1975-76 season while Little House finished the season outside of the top 30 for the first and only time in its history. It was also the only time until season 9 that Little House didn’t finish the season as the highest rated show in its time slot.
|9/10/1975||The Richest Man in Walnut Grove||not in top 20|
|10/1/1975||In the Big Inning||12|
|10/29/1975||The Spring Dance||13|
|11/5/1975||Remember Me: Part 1||9|
|11/12/1975||Remember Me: Part 2||13|
|12/10/1975||At the End of the Rainbow||not in top 20|
|1/7/1976||His Father’s Son||15|
|1/14/1976||The Talking Machine||na|
|1/28/1976||The Pride of Walnut Grove||21|
|2/4/1976||A Matter of Faith||na|
|2/11/1976||The Runaway Caboose||not in top 20|
|2/25/1976||Troublemaker||not in top 20|
|3/3/1976||The Long Road Home||44|
|3/10/1976||For My Lady||not in top 20|
|3/24/1976||Soldier’s Return||not in top 20|
Season 3 (#15)
NBC didn’t want a similar scenario to play out during season three, so they moved Little House to 8 PM on Monday nights where it remained for the rest of its run. Little House was up against Rhoda which had finished number 7 in the ratings the year before, but the move paid off for NBC and Little House returned to the top 20 of the ratings by finishing the 1976-77 season at number 15. Meanwhile, Rhoda was knocked out of the top 30 and forced to move to Sunday nights midway through the season. Little House can take some credit for this, but they were also helped by the fact that Rhoda alienated a large part its audience with the separation of Rhoda and her husband Joe in the first episode of the season. Starting this season, Little House was NBC’s highest rated scripted show and remained that way through the end of season eight (1981-82).
|10/4/1976||Bunny||not in top 20|
|10/18/1976||Little Girl Lost||na|
|11/1/1976||The Monster of Walnut Grove||9|
|11/15/1976||Journey in the Spring: Part 1||na|
|11/22/1976||Journey in the Spring: Part 2||na|
|12/6/1976||The Bully Boys||19|
|12/20/1976||The Hunters (90 minutes)||6|
|12/27/1976||Blizzard||not in top 20|
|1/10/1977||I’ll Ride the Wind||9|
|1/17/1977||Quarantine||not in top 20|
|2/14/1977||To Live with Fear: Part 1||12|
|2/21/1977||To Live with Fear: Part 2||12|
|2/28/1977||The Wisdom of Solomon||not in top 20|
|3/14/1977||The Music Box||15|
|4/4/1977||Gold Country (2 hours)||7|
Season Four (#7)
There were many changes this season, but Little House was more popular than ever and finished the 1977-78 season at number 7. It helped that ABC and CBS pretty much conceded the 8pm Monday night time slot to Little House by scheduling shows such as The San Pedro Beach Bums, Lucan, Young Dan’l Boone, and Logan’s Run. One major change in the show was Merlin Oleson being brought in as Jonathan Garvey. The Garvey family essentially took the place of the Edwards family since Victor French had left at the end of season three to star in Carter Country. The lowest rated episode of the season was “The Handyman” which aired against Elvis in Concert on CBS and finished in the bottom 20 for the week. “I’ll Be Waving as You Drive Away: Part 2” was the highest rated episode of the entire series and was the first episode to finish number one in the weekly ratings.
|9/19/1977||Times of Change||8|
|9/26/1977||My Ellen||not in top 10|
|10/3/1977||The Handyman||bottom 20|
|10/24/1977||The Creeper of Walnut Grove||20|
|10/31/1977||To Run and Hide||12|
|11/14/1977||The High Cost of Being Right||9|
|11/21/1977||The Fighter (90 minutes)||14|
|11/28/1977||Meet Me at the Fair||20|
|12/5/1977||Here Come the Brides||5|
|1/9/1978||The Rivals||not in top 20|
|1/23/1978||I Remember, I Remember||5|
|1/30/1978||Be My Friend (90 minutes)||5|
|2/27/1978||A Most Precious Gift||5|
|3/6/1978||I’ll Be Waving as You Drive Away: Part 1||2|
|3/13/1978||I’ll Be Waving as You Drive Away: Part 2||1|
Season Five (#14)
Matthew Laborteaux joined the cast as Albert at the beginning of season five to give Laura another sibling to interact with now that Mary was out of the house and teaching. ABC and CBS decided to challenge Little House on Monday nights with Welcome Back, Kotter, Operation Petticoat, and WKRP in Cincinnati, but Little House still won its time slot and ended up finishing number 14 overall during the 1978-79 season. “The Wedding” became the second episode of Little House to finish number one in the ratings.
|9/11/1978||As Long as We’re Together: Part 1||13|
|9/18/1978||As Long as We’re Together: Part 2||14|
|9/25/1978||The Winoka Warriors||7|
|10/2/1978||The Man Inside||na|
|10/9/1978||There’s No Place Like Home: Part 1||not in top 10|
|10/16/1978||There’s No Place Like Home: Part 2 (90 minutes)||2|
|11/13/1978||Men Will Be Boys||18|
|11/27/1978||Blind Journey: Part 1||4|
|12/4/1978||Blind Journey: Part 2||9|
|12/18/1978||The Godsister (90 minutes)||14|
|1/15/1979||Blind Man’s Bluff||not in top 20|
|1/22/1979||Dance with Me (90 minutes)||18|
|2/5/1979||The Sound of Children||not in top 10|
|2/12/1979||The Lake Kezia Monster||not in top 20|
|2/19/1979||Barn Burner||not in top 20|
|2/26/1979||The Enchanted Cottage||10|
|3/5/1979||Someone Please Love Me||13|
Season Six (#16)
At the beginning of the season six, Dean Butler joined the cast as Almanzo Wilder. This season produced many memorable moments with three episodes landing in our top ten list. Little House remained strong in the ratings and finished the 1979-80 season at number 16.
|9/17/1979||Back to School: Part 1||8|
|9/24/1979||Back to School: Part 2||3|
|10/1/1979||The Family Tree||9|
|10/8/1979||The Third Miracle||7|
|10/22/1979||The Preacher Takes a Wife||not in top 10|
|10/29/1979||The Halloween Dream||6|
|11/5/1979||The Return of Mr. Edwards||23|
|11/12/1979||The King Is Dead||15|
|11/18/1979||The Little House Years||na|
|11/19/1979||The Faith Healer||not in top 10|
|12/17/1979||The Angry Heart||13|
|1/7/1980||The Werewolf of Walnut Grove||8|
|1/14/1980||Whatever Happened to the Class of ’56?||12|
|1/21/1980||Darkness Is My Friend||6|
|2/4/1980||May We Make Them Proud (2 hours)||3|
|2/11/1980||Wilder and Wilder||5|
|5/5/1980||He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: Part 1||8|
|5/12/1980||He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: Part 2||4|
Season Seven (#10)
The two-part episode that opened season seven featured Laura’s marriage to Almanzo. By this time most of the original kids had grown up with Laura, Mary, and Nellie all happily married. This would mean trouble for most shows, but Little House remained strong and finished the 1980-81 season at number 10 in the ratings.
|9/22/1980||Laura Ingalls Wilder: Part 1||4|
|9/29/1980||Laura Ingalls Wilder: Part 2||2|
|10/6/1980||A New Beginning||15|
|10/13/1980||Fight Team Fight!||18|
|10/20/1980||The Silent Cry||15|
|10/27/1980||Portrait of Love||8|
|11/10/1980||Divorce, Walnut Grove Style||na|
|11/17/1980||Dearest Albert, I’ll Miss You||14|
|12/1/1980||To See the Light: Part 1||na|
|12/8/1980||To See the Light: Part 2||na|
|1/5/1981||Oleson vs Oleson||na|
|1/12/1981||Come Let Us Reason Together||5|
|1/26/1981||Make a Joyful Noise||na|
|2/2/1981||Goodbye, Mrs. Wilder||na|
|2/9/1981||Sylvia: Part 1||na|
|2/16/1981||Sylvia: Part 2||3|
|3/2/1981||I Do, Again||na|
|5/4/1981||The Lost Ones: Part 1||na|
|5/11/1981||The Lost Ones: Part 2||na|
Season Eight (#24)
Unfortunately, season eight brought about many changes and Little House finally started to lose steam. Melissa Sue Anderson and Alison Arngrim elected to not re-sign with the show at the end of their original seven year contracts, so Mary, Adam, Nellie, and Percival were written out of the show with their characters all moving to New York. The Garveys were also gone with Merlin Oleson leaving to star in Father Murphy. The Ingalls adopted James and Cassandra at the end of season seven to get some older kids back in the Ingalls house, and the Olesons adopted Nancy to replace Nellie at the beginning of season eight, but none of the new kids lived up to the originals in the eyes of the fans. Victor French returned as Mr. Edwards towards the end of the season, but without the rest of the Edwards family. Little House still won its time slot, but faced increasingly tough competition from That’s Incredible on ABC. Little House finished the 1981-82 season tied with The Facts of Life at 24, while That’s Incredible finished 28.
|10/5/1981||The Reincarnation of Nellie: Part 1||15|
|10/12/1981||The Reincarnation of Nellie: Part 2||na|
|11/2/1981||A Wiser Heart||not in top 20|
|11/9/1981||Gambini the Great||na|
|11/16/1981||The Legend of Black Jake||not in top 20|
|11/30/1981||For the Love of Nancy||12|
|12/7/1981||Wave of the Future||not in top 20|
|12/21/1981||A Christmas They Never Forgot||5|
|1/4/1982||No Beast So Fierce||na|
|2/15/1982||Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow: Part 1 (90 minutes)||na|
|2/22/1982||Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow: Part 2||2|
|3/1/1982||A Promise to Keep||na|
|3/8/1982||A Faraway Cry||na|
|5/3/1982||He Was Only Twelve: Part 1||na|
|5/10/1982||He Was Only Twelve: Part 2||na|
Season Nine (#28)
Michael Landon decided that the show should focus on Laura and Almanzo, so the Ingalls family was written out at the start of season nine and the title was changed to Little House: A New Beginning. More new kids joined the cast with the Wilder’s adopting Almanzo’s niece Jenny and the Carter family moving into the Ingalls house, but they failed to recapture the magic that Laura, Mary, Nellie, and Willie had during the first few seasons of Little House. Little House was no longer NBC’s highest rated scripted show and no longer won its time slot, but it still managed to finish the 1982-83 season in the top 30 tied with Happy Days at number 28. Unfortunately, number 28 wasn’t good enough for NBC and they cancelled the show. NBC didn’t bother to notify Michael Landon who found out about the cancellation when Little House was left off NBC’s 1983 fall schedule.
|9/27/1982||Times Are Changing: Part 1||16|
|10/4/1982||Times Are Changing: Part 2||na|
|10/11/1982||Welcome to Olesonville||na|
|11/1/1982||The Wild Boy: Part 1||not in top 10|
|11/8/1982||The Wild Boy: Part 2||na|
|11/15/1982||The Return of Nellie||na|
|11/22/1982||The Empire Builders||not in top 20|
|1/10/1983||Sins of the Fathers||na|
|1/17/1983||The Older Brothers||na|
|1/24/1983||Once Upon a Time||na|
|2/7/1983||Home Again (2 hours)||na|
|2/14/1983||A Child with No Name||not in top 15|
|2/21/1983||The Last Summer||na|
|3/7/1983||For the Love of Blanche||na|
|3/14/1983||May I Have This Dance||not in top 20|
|3/21/1983||Hello and Goodbye||17|
Final Three Movies
Fortunately, NBC allowed Landon to make three final movies to bring the series to a conclusion.
|12/12/1983||Look Back to Yesterday||na|
|2/6/1984||The Last Farewell||9|
|12/17/1984||Bless All the Dear Children||18|
Since Little House ended, it has continued to enjoy success and gain millions of new fans through reruns. Little House was syndicated by many local stations around the United States in the late 1980s and was a mainstay in the WTBS morning lineup from 1986 until 2003. It has been on the Hallmark Channel since 2003 and is currently broadcast weekdays on Hallmark and INSP.
DVD and Blu-ray
In 2002, Imavision obtained home entertainment distribution rights to Little House on the Prairie in the United States and released the pilot movie, all nine seasons, and the final three movies on DVD between 2003 and 2006. Unfortunately, these releases were made from the syndication tapes and suffered many issues including missing scenes, time compression, and poor audio and video quality.
In 2007, Lionsgate obtained the United States distribution rights from Imavision and said in a press release at the time that Little House was “the second best-selling TV on DVD program of its era with more than two million units sold to date.”
In 2014, Lionsgate announced that Little House had been completely restored and remastered in high definition. So far, the pilot movie and the first seven seasons have been released in stunning quality on Blu-ray, while the pilot movie and all nine seasons have been released in Digital HD through Amazon Video, iTunes, and Vudu. The restored version of the entire series including the final three movies has been released in a DVD box set. The only thing missing is “The Little House Years” Thanksgiving special from season six which has never been released on home video.