Seven of the Top Ten Television Series Are Westerns

Westerns, which were introduced to television in the mid-1950’s, dominated American television drama by the end of the decade. By that time, television had become a ubiquitous part of American culture, and the Western was therefore one of the primary means by which the nation told itself stories.

Summary of Event

American television technology was well developed by the 1930’s, but commercial television was not widely marketed until the late 1940’s because World War II imposed heavy demands on production facilities. At first, all broadcasting was done by local stations. Networking presented many technical problems that were not worked out until late in 1951, when the West Coast was finally absorbed into the National Broadcasting Company’s composite viewing audience. Television;Westerns
Westerns (television)
United States;postwar popular culture
[kw]Seven of the Top Ten Television Series Are Westerns (1958-1959)
[kw]Television Series Are Westerns, Seven of the Top Ten Are (1958-1959)
[kw]Westerns, Seven of the Top Ten Television Series Are (1958-1959)
Westerns (television)
United States;postwar popular culture
[g]North America;1958-1959: Seven of the Top Ten Television Series Are Westerns[05770]
[g]United States;1958-1959: Seven of the Top Ten Television Series Are Westerns[05770]
[c]Radio and television;1958-1959: Seven of the Top Ten Television Series Are Westerns[05770]
Arness, James
Blake, Amanda
Bond, Ward
Boone, Richard
Connors, Chuck
Garner, James
O’Brian, Hugh
Robertson, Dale

The public was attracted to this new medium, but sales were slow because early sets were expensive, reception was reliable only in the major cities, and programming quality was inferior to what was offered by film theaters. There were no big stars on television because film stars were afraid of losing their charisma by being identified with what was considered an inferior medium, one not much different from radio. The Hollywood motion-picture studios hated and feared television, knowing it would keep people away from theaters. Filmmakers refused to sell or lease anything for television viewing except ancient cowboy films, silent comedies, and primitive animated cartoons.

Actors such as Milton Berle, a has-been film comedian who had never played anything but supporting roles in films, became television superstars. The independent stations could not afford expensive entertainment because there were not enough viewers to bring in advertising revenue to pay for it. When the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC)—known as the “Big Three”—finally established television networks that could reach the entire nation, the resulting advertising revenues and keen competition for ratings warranted greater expenditures on programming.

James Garner’s portrayal of the irreverent gambler Bret Maverick introduced adult wit to television Westerns, adding to their popularity among grown-ups.

(Arkent Archive)

During most of the 1950’s, the big productions featured on television were broadcast live from New York. In the mid-1950’s, however, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. succumbed to the lure of profits, and weekly filmed series made in Hollywood and termed “adult Westerns” began to appear. The first ones were so popular that they spawned a host of imitators. By the 1958-1959 season, Westerns had become so popular that they dominated “prime time” (the hours between 7:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., when audiences are largest).

What mainly distinguished adult Westerns from the old cowboy films starring such heroes as Tom Mix and Buck Jones, cranked out by the hundreds in the 1920’s and 1930’s, was characterization. In the old Hollywood Westerns, Hollywood studio system;Westerns
Westerns (cinema) which were targeted at children and unsophisticated rural audiences, the hero was typically all good, and the unscrupulous villain had no redeeming virtues. There was little feminine interest; the hero was more likely to kiss his horse than to kiss the heroine. In the new television Westerns, which were strongly influenced by such innovative feature films as High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953), the hero had human foibles, and the villains were often sympathetic, or at least understandable, figures. Furthermore, there was often a strong interest in the opposite sex, and good roles existed for actresses.

For example, the hero of Have Gun Will Travel
Have Gun Will Travel (television program) broke with convention by wearing all-black clothing. The show’s protagonist, Paladin, was not idealistic but was instead interested in making money and living the good life. His professed occupation, as the series title suggests, was that of a hired killer, “a knight without honor in a savage land,” although he seldom displayed unethical behavior.

The handsome hero of Maverick
Maverick (television program) hated fighting, was not at all proficient with a gun, and displayed a strong interest in the opposite sex. The most popular television Western of all, Gunsmoke, Gunsmoke (television program) featured a woman who ran a saloon and gambling parlor, quite possibly was earning money as a madam, and seemed to have an out-of-wedlock relationship with the show’s hero, Marshal Dillon.

All the popular television Western series featured violence. Some of the heroes carried exotic weapons. Lucas McCain of The Rifleman
Rifleman, The (television program) killed his enemies with a trick rifle that he could fire as fast as a revolver. Steve McQueen McQueen, Steve , who played bounty hunter Josh Randall on Wanted: Dead or Alive, Wanted: Dead or Alive (television program) another top-ranking series, carried a sawed-off weapon that was a combination pistol and shotgun. Among the scriptwriters’ biggest problems was dreaming up new ways for men to kill one another and new motives for doing so. One Hollywood writer was quoted as saying that viewers demanded three things of every Western story: a fistfight, a gunfight, and galloping horses. Gunsmoke, the longest-lasting Western series of all time, opened with the credits superimposed on a scene in which Marshal Dillon kills an opponent in a shoot-out on Dodge City’s main street.

Audiences liked the violence, the undemanding plots, the simple morality, the escapist nature of the genre, and the handsome heroes. By the 1958-1959 season, seven of the ten top-rated series on television were Westerns: Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Maverick, Tales of Wells Fargo, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.


New York broadcasters, producers, writers, and actors had been in an excellent position to dominate the new medium of television, with its fantastic potential for making money and influencing public opinion. The East Coast controlled the lion’s share of American capital. The big radio networks, the rich corporate sponsors, and the major advertising agencies were all headquartered in New York, and it would have been convenient as well as highly profitable to keep television production and broadcasting centered in the country’s number-one city as well. New York was also the major center for publishing, which made it an intellectual capital. Control of programming gradually slipped through the Easterners’ fingers, however, because of a variety of complex factors.

For one thing, New York writers were oriented toward the stage and radio, which meant that their productions emphasized spoken words. They did not really understand the great difference between stage plays and motion pictures; they tended to bring Broadway to the general public, perhaps thinking they were thereby elevating American tastes to their own cultural level. Furthermore, their interests were confined to the Eastern seaboard, and they had little understanding of the psychology of the rest of the country.

New Yorkers joked that, as far as they were concerned, the world ended at the Hudson River. This joke eventually backfired. New Yorkers tended to have sophisticated tastes and planned to upgrade the tastes of the rest of the country. The foremost spokesperson of this idealistic attitude was NBC president Sylvester L. Weaver Weaver, Sylvester L. , a member of Phi Beta Kappa who had graduated with highest honors from an Ivy League college. He said: “NBC must do good. Television must be used to upgrade humanity across a broad base.” By the late 1960’s, when Hollywood had come to dominate the medium, the distinguished journalist Edward P. Morgan Morgan, Edward P. stated: “Once upon a time television was supposed to operate in the public interest, but lo and behold, it has captured the public and made it a product—a packaged audience, so to speak, which it sells to advertisers.”

It was impossible for people with high artistic standards to turn out the amount of cheap programming that the new medium demanded. Some television stations in major cities were already broadcasting around the clock and creating a demand for material that was beginning to make television seem like an insatiable monster. It was probably inevitable that the Hollywood studios would inherit the bulk of program production.

Hollywood studio heads had never tried to upgrade public taste; their philosophy had always been to give the public what it wanted. What the majority of the public wanted was escapist entertainment that required no mental effort to follow. Hollywood writers understood that people go to see films but that they watch television: The visual aspect of the medium is far more important than the dialogue. This relationship was even more true of television than of motion pictures because, in order to adjust to the small television screen, the cameras had to feature close-ups and “tight shots.” This requirement meant not only that more information was conveyed by subtle changes of characters’ expressions but that the viewer had to stay “glued to the tube” to understand the story as well.

The explosion of Westerns that occurred on television in the late 1950’s signaled the beginning of a new era for the medium. The Hollywood studios proved their long-established expertise in turning out cheap entertainment for mass audiences. The film medium was by far the most practical, if not the most elevating or edifying, means of producing television entertainment. Once the shows were on film, they could be shown over and over again and could be exported overseas to earn additional revenue. Westerns were a very practical commodity, since the genre has always proved popular with viewers all over the world. Furthermore, Westerns are a form of costume drama; they do not become dated with changes in clothing or hairstyles.

The Hollywood studios might have been content to continue making Westerns forever if the public had not become satiated with shoot-outs, barroom brawls, poker games, cattle drives, Indian attacks, and the other limited features of the genre. Violence in drama tends to escalate because it acts like a drug, requiring larger and larger doses to create the same effect. Educators, church officials, and other civic leaders began to protest against the orgy of violence on American television screens. Most of the scriptwriters knew nothing about the Old West and quickly ran out of inspiration. Westerns were superseded on television by a plethora of crime dramas featuring private detectives and police officers. The formula remained essentially the same, however, with the same hero facing a new villain each week, with cars replacing horses and automatics replacing six-shooters. Television;Westerns
Westerns (television)
United States;postwar popular culture

Further Reading

  • “The American Morality Play: TV’s Western Heroes.” Time 73 (March 30, 1959): 52-60. An article about the top-rated television Westerns of 1959 featured as the cover story in the nation’s leading newsmagazine. Especially interesting because it gives a contemporary version of the enormous impact that television Westerns were having on the American public.
  • Balio, Tino, ed. Hollywood in the Age of Television. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990. A collection of essays on the business aspects of Hollywood film production and television network competition, written by various authorities, mostly academicians. Each essay is heavily documented with endnotes and also provides a list of valuable suggestions for further reading.
  • Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. The history of television from its earliest beginnings, stressing its emergence as a dominant factor in American life and in American influence throughout the world. Contains a chronological log highlighting important events in television history. An excellent annotated bibliography and an index are provided.
  • Buscombe, Edward, and Roberta E. Pearson, eds. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. London: British Film Institute, 1998. Compilation of critical essays by leading scholars on television and cinema Westerns. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Lackmann, Ron. Remember Television. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971. This richly illustrated book covers the history of television programming from 1947 through 1958. It gives an excellent overview of what television was like before the onslaught of the mass-produced Hollywood made-for-television Westerns in the late 1950’s. Important news events are headlined at the beginning of each chapter to orient the reader to what was going on in the world at the time.
  • MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. Covers the history of television for four decades, from the earliest beginnings of network television up to the end of the 1980’s. Heavily documented with endnotes; contains an exceptionally thorough bibliography.
  • _______. Who Shot the Sheriff? The Rise and Fall of the Television Western. New York: Praeger, 1987. MacDonald, author of several other books on mass media, analyzes the development of Western characters and themes on television as a mirror of American values, beliefs, and ideals. He states that Westerns lost their popularity because they could not express contemporary ideology.
  • Wallman, Jeffrey. The Western: Parables of the American Dream. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1999. Ideological critique of the Western genre in film, television, and literature. Bibliographic references and index.
  • West, Richard. Television Westerns: Major and Minor Series, 1946-1978. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. Describes all Western series appearing on television from 1946 to 1978, including biographical information on the principal actors. Contains photographs of the more prominent ones. Appendixes contain comprehensive information on casting, Emmy Award winners, popularity ratings, title changes for syndication, and airtimes. Informative introduction and thorough index.

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