By 1959, westerns ruled. No fewer than 26 episodic westerns rode supreme on the three networks ABC, CBS, and NBC; DuMont was an early fourth network which started in 1946. DuMont’s programming was very eclectic featuring religion, science, variety, detectives, comedy, and wrestling, but no westerns. The network dissolved in 1956 as the westerns really began their ascension.
By 1968, extreme pressure from the P.T.A. and other anti-violence groups compounded affects the networks were already feeling from the Vietnam War protests and the tragic assassinations Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The westerns didn’t lose viewer popularity the networks simply became skittish and decided to cancel anything that might be blamed for violence on the streets.
High Chaparral was a prime example. In its 4th season, 1970-’71, there were only 18 episodes shot when the average was around 30 per season. This western could be rough and gritty at times, as opposed to its counterpart, Bonanza, but it was popular and was maintaining its ratings. Never-the-less, NBC sent word to the producers that they needed to tone down the violence. “Make sure that if anyone is shot on camera it’s only a wound,” was the order. A fifth season was announced and new characters had been introduced in the fourth season to return; Rudy Ramos as “Wind” was the prime example. Scripts were being prepared and contracts ready to sign, but the show was cancelled. High Chaparral had lost its edginess by being forced to feature more social drama and less of what their audience wanted. They became Bonanza in the desert. The networks were looking for any excuse to rid themselves of programs that didn’t fit their idea of the age group and the suburban audience they wished to cater to. By using the pressure groups as an excuse they were able to achieve their goal.
In 1970, there were no new episodic westerns introduced to television for the first time since 1949. The one possible exception would be the drastic change in format for The Virginian which had been a mainstay on television since 1962 despite several cast changes over the years except for the two “money actors,” the ones the audience watched the show for, namely James Drury as the Virginian and Doug McClure as Trampas. In season eight the show took a dip in the ratings and fell out of the top 30 programs for the first time. What could have been an excuse for NBC to cancel the western instead became a reason to change the name of the show, the format, the familiar clothing, the theme song, and add or subtract a few characters. Stewart Granger as Colonel Alan MacKenzie became the owner of the ranch and popular western mainstay, Lee Majors, was added to the cast. The format now became a rotation with stars Granger, Drury, McClure, and Majors becoming the solo focus from week to week. Surprisingly, the rating climbed back into the top 30 to 18 maintaining it as only one of four westerns still left in prime time, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and High Chapparal being the other three; Death Valley Days had been on the air with new syndicated episodes since 1952 and ending in 1970, but many historians ignore its longevity due to it being a “syndicated” series. Despite the rating jump, due likely in curiosity more than anything, this bastardized version of The Virginian was canceled after its ninth season. Granger could be the answer to the cancellation due to his being so hard to work with, letting everyone know that he was a screen star who was slumming.
Surprisingly Gunsmoke, the most popular and longest running western of all time, 1955 – 1975, had actually been canceled in 1967 at the height of its popularity. While having dinner a few years back with the show’s former head writer Paul Savage, he told me that Gunsmoke was Babe Paley’s favorite show; Babe was CBS President William Paley’s wife. “When Babe heard that her favorite show had been canceled she went ballistic,” Paul told me. In order for Gunsmoke to be placed back on the schedule, per Paley’s orders (William or Babe), they had to come up with 30 minutes for the hour long show to fit back in its time-slot. One of their returning half hour shows had to be sacrificed and that was the end of Gilligan’s Island.
The extremely popular, Bonanza, a peripheral western at best, lost steam in May of 1972 with the death of Dan Blocker from post operative complications. The show limped on for one more season but it was obvious the show had no heart without Hoss. The show fell out of the top 30 in its 14th season and was canceled; if Blocker had lived so might have the show.
Gunsmoke would hold down the fort, so to speak, with one exceptional episodic western, Alias Smith and Jones, making its debut in 1971 only to be cut off at the pass with the suicide of Pete Duel in December of 1971. Universal wanted to cancel the popular series but ABC had a western hit and threatened legal action. Without missing a beat, Roger Davis, the narrator of the series, was cast to replace Duel as Hannibal Hayes. The chemistry between Ben Murphy and Duel was missing and the replacement was not accepted by the home viewer.
The Rural Purge of the episodic television western had clearly left it’s mark and westerns would never rule the video airwaves as they did when only three networks dictated what we watched. Today, however, those very same demographics work in the favor of western lovers. With what seems like hundreds of television stations and streaming services available it’s not feasible for every station to cater to the same specific audience and stay relevant. Every year new formats are offered for those who are partial to romance, sci-fi, horror, drama, comedy…and yes our beloved westerns.
Charlie LeSueur is AZ's Official Western Film Historian, Encore Fellow @ Spirit of the West; Scottsdale's Museum of the West.