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Monday, January 02, 2006

In September, 1955, John Wayne appeared on CBS to introduce a new show that would change the public's vision of the Western on television. That show was "Gunsmoke" and it was the first of the successful "adult" Westerns. It was to run for twenty years and make a star out of James Arness who played Marshal Matt Dillon. With its sucess came others such as "Cheyenne", "Have Gun, Will Travel", and "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp".
These shows were different from the "kiddie" fare like Hoppy, Cisco, and the masked man. In the early 1950's there were successful Westerns made for the silver screen such as "High Noon" (1952) and "Shane" (1953). These movies explored adult relationships and subjects not previously considered for juvenile audiences. Because of this success in the movies, the adult Western became a theme for television. It was a natural for the tube; until that time the younger audience carried the ratings for the genre. By adding adult themes, these shows now captured the parental interest and still managed to keep the kids as there was still action to hold their attention. It was a perfect setup for the networks.
In the 1955-1956 season there were nine Westerns in prime time on television. By the 1958-1959 season there were 31. The movie studios were involved in the production of these shows which meant they were all on film. This gave them a much better "look" than previously made eastern productions that seemed "stagey" or had the blurred look of kinescope.
Despite the success of the adult Western, it was not without its critics. By the late 1950's and early 1960's, many complained about the excessive violence of these programs; most notably Newton Minnow, the head of the Federal Communications Commission during the Kennedy Administration. He referred to television as a "vast wasteland" in a 1961 speech which singled out the Western in particular.

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