Westerns were always a popular genre in film starting with the ten minute production of “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. The popularity continued through the silent era with stars like Hoot Gibson and the Farnum Brothers. As sound film evolved Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, and others cashed in.
In spite of some adult western features like “The Westerner” (1940), and “The Ox Bow Incident” (1943) the Western was primarily aimed at rural and juvenile audiences. With the popularity of TV in the early ‘50s, stars like Rogers and Autry got their own shows along with transfers from radio like “The Cisco Kid” and “The Lone Ranger.” By the mid ‘50s, classier productions like “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” and “Davy Crockett” came aboard the tube.
The month of September, 1955 provided a watershed moment as John Wayne appeared on CBS to introduce a new show that would change the public’s vision of the Western. The 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, a personal friend of Wayne.
With the success of “Gunsmoke” came ”Cheyenne”, “Have Gun, Will Travel”, and “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” These shows were a lot different from the kiddie fare provided by Gene, Roy, Hoppy, and Cisco. The adult Western caught on with TV because of the success of early ‘50s Western films like “High Noon” (1952) and “Shane” (1953) which carried adult themes.
Adult Westerns were a natural for the tube. They captured the interest of parents while having enough action scenes to attract the kids. 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! Shows like “The Rifleman” with Chuck Conners, “Tales of Wells Fargo” with Dale Robertson, and "Wanted, Dead or Alive” with Steve McQueen were ratings winners along with “Yancy Derringer.
Chuck Conners as "The Rifleman"
In spite of the success of the adult Western, it was not without its critics. By the late ‘50s and early 60s, many complained about the excessive violence, most notably Newton Minnow who was the head of the FCC during the Kennedy Administration. He referred to television as a “vast wasteland” in a 1961 speech which singled out the Western in particular.
As the 60s began, the popularity of Western was declining. Violence was one issue but there also were too many of these shows so the public was growing a bit weary of them. Besides, Nielsen ratings were showing that Westerns appealed to an older demographic; one that was not as likely to buy many of the sponsor’s products.
The “smooth detective” was becoming a popular genre after the fade of Westerns although shows like “Gunsmoke”, Bonanza”, and “The Big Valley” hung on for several more years.