The Demise of the Genre

For the Western to have continued to inundate network TV, or even to have survived as viable video alternative, the mass audience would have had to maintain its taste for the mentality fundamental to the format. This did not happen.

As well as raising primal doubts regarding the Western as legal, moral, and political drama, momentous events of the 1960s and after have altered popular understanding of the attitudes and values that made the genre so widely accepted. The exposure of overwhelming and chronic civil rights injustices in the United States debased the image of freedom and human dignity so lavishly reinforced in the Western. A divisive war and defeat in Southeast Asia revealed the in­glorious truth about militarism and death—themes that Hollywood frontier dramas usually romanticized. Although there had been a chronic critique of violence on television, the nightly slaughter of the Vietnam War on TV seemed to saturate American culture with bloody vio­lence, thereby rendering excessive, even obscene, the mayhem integral to the Western.

Other factors eroded the spirit of the genre. Scandals surrounding the White House undermined the political solemnity inherent in the Western. The women's movement—which in the 1970s precipitated a social, economic, political, and historical reappraisal of the role of American women—aggressively confronted the preponderant machis­mo of the genre. The ineffectiveness of the U.S. response in the global struggle against civil war and terrorism in the Third World also mitigated against the Western's myth of the invincibility of the United States.

The undermining of self-perceptions fundamental to a century of American sociopolitical life has meant the death of the nation’s principal genre of romanticized, quasi-historical entertainment. Where no outlaw's bullet could fell the Cartwrights of Bonanza, mass cynicism caused them to vanish from NBC in January 1973. Although Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke survived on CBS for two decades, they died unceremoniously in 1975, anachronisms in an era of social reevaluation.

Actually, as early as the fall of 1967 the fate of the TV Western was foreshadowed in the case of Custer, an ABC series based freely on the frontier exploits of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Whatever expectations the network or its producer, 20th Century Fox Television, had for the series, Custer was out of date from its inception.

Even before its first telecast, Native American organizations assailed the program as detrimental to Indians. The protest began with Sioux Indians in South Dakota. More than 24,000 Chippewa Indians in Minnesota then criticized it, alleging in the words of a spokesman, "The Custer series will stir up old animosities and revive Indian and cowboy fallacies we have been trying to live down." Following the premier show, the National Congress of the American Indian demanded equal time to reply to the misrepresentations it detected.

The series itself offered an outdated image of the Old West. The depiction of savage Indians slaughtering white men was offensive to civil rights groups, and especially to Native Americans. The brutality of the stories—from knife fights to scalpings to old-fashioned cavalry charges—violated the sensibilities of many critical of TV violence. A bear-hunting expedition offended those sensitive to ecological issues and animal rights. The masculine emphases of the series mitigated against female interest.

The distortions of frontier history in Custer were also pronounced. Those seeking historical reconstruction or even accuracy were discouraged. The stress on military glory in Custer ran counter to a growing public debate by 1967 over the military role of the United States in the Vietnam War. To this were added scripts in which, for example, Custer insensitively could tell his troops, "As professional soldiers, we'd best leave the question of morality to those whose job it is. Our job is to fight." The series was canceled after half a season.

Larry White, vice president for programming at NBC, touched upon the predicament of the TV Western by the early 1970s when he remarked that "the younger audience seems not to have an appetite for westerns." Speaking in 1972 White added, "Younger people today are 25 years farther removed from the Old West" and are not really interested in what they consider an oversimplification of history. Moreover, he concluded, the black-and-white hues of the Western formula simply appeal no longer to the younger generation.

Indeed, by the early 1970s youthful interest in the Western had diminished significantly. A study of children in the first, sixth, and tenth grades found that as the favorite type of television program, the Western rated far behind situation comedy, police/detective shows, drama, and the like. According to Table 10, in the three school groups the Western was no longer popular.

Table 10: Children’s Favorite Programs, Early 1970s
First Grade Sixth Grade Tenth Grade
Program TypeFirst Choice %First Choice %First Choice %
Youth-oriented
adventure101420
Situation comedy22179
Family Sitcom2239
Police/detective356
Cartoon/kids2456
Music/variety/talk3513
Serial drama--39
Drama2613
News--11
Education/culture432
Western387
Game show242
Sports--22
Movies246

Ironically, there had been those who felt the Western would never die as a television form. Usually a prescient observer of American popular cultural trends, Les Brown in Variety declared as late as Decem­ber 1965 that the "Western has become a staple of television and prob­ably will always remain one." Earlier Nat Holt, producer of Tales of Wells Fargo, saw only a bright future for the genre. In 1959 he pointed out that since the beginning of the film industry one-quarter of all movies had been Westerns. Now on TV, he maintained, "people want Westerns, and you can't take away something they want." Both Brown and Holt were shortsighted. By the mid-1970s the Western was virtually gone from network television. Except for a few old series crawling toward cancellation, audiences apparently no longer wanted such programming.

Nevertheless, there were many attempts after 1970 to revive the genre. New series with novel emphases ranged from exploitation of contemporary martial arts techniques (Kung Fu) to new sensitivities toward the experiences of women in the Old West (Sara) and Native Americans in the modern West (Cade's County). There were short-term miniseries (The Sacketts), longer-running historical epics (Centennial), and one miniseries became a regular series (The Chisolms).

Some of the biggest names in the popular arts were enlisted, in­cluding the Walt Disney studio (Zorro and Son and Wildside) and au­thor Louis L'Amour (The Sacketts). Disney executives even joined forces with this most successful writer of Western novels when they produced Louis L’Amour's The Cherokee Trail, an unsuccessful pilot shown on CBS in November 1981.

Popular motion pictures about frontier life inspired several TV series. Thus the charmingly irreverent Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid begat the self-consciously irreverent Alias Smith and Jones. The Cowboys, a feature film starring John Wayne, led less imaginatively to The Cowboys, a television Western featuring Jim Davis. Two motion pictures from Sweden, The Emigrants and The New Land—features that told of the Swedish settlers in frontier Minnesota in the mid-nineteenth century—inspired the TV series, The New Land.

Younger viewers, so sizable a segment of the television audience, were approached directly in Young Dan'l Boone, The Young Pioneers, and The Cowboys. The first offered the famous Kentucky backwoods­man while still in his mid-twenties. The Young Pioneers featured the tribulations of teenage newlyweds in the Dakota hinterland in the 1870s. The Cowboys told of seven children—the oldest being 15 years of age—running a cattle ranch for a sympathetic widow.

For those who preferred their Western heroes grizzled and well-experienced, Hec Ramsey was a scruffy old-timer confronting up-to-date methods of criminal detection as deputy sheriff in the pioneering town of New Prospect, Oklahoma. Dirty Sally concerned a cantankerous, liquor-drinking old woman moving toward the gold fields of California accompanied by a young ex-gunfighter and a mule named Worthless.

One of the most powerful productions in this search for the acceptable Western was The Quest. In its desire to be relevant, this series in the fall of 1976 offered an alluring mix of violence, youthful initiative, sympathy for racial minorities, and antimilitarism. Set in the 1870s, the program concerned two orphaned and separated brothers—one raised on the plains by Cheyenne Indians, the other a medical school graduate who grew up in San Francisco—who were now reunited in quest of their sister, herself taken years earlier by Indians.

In the eleven episodes that aired on CBS, The Quest employed violence to picture the West as a brutal, sinister, and unhappy domain. In the premier program the brothers helped the U.S. Cavalry "rescue" a young white woman who had lived for years with Indians. During their bloody raid on her village, the American troops were shown callously shooting women and children fleeing the attackers. Removed to the white man's civilization, the young woman was raped by a sadistic soldier, then rejected by bigoted townspeople who disliked her past association with Indians.

Another offering of The Quest concerned the importation of Chinese strike-breakers whose appearance incited anti-business and anti-Asian prejudices in the citizens of a wilderness settlement. Still another program dealt with a lusty bordello operator whose civic-mindedness matched her acumen for peddling women's sexual favors.

Stark meanness permeated The Quest. Whether it was a crazed Texas Ranger who preferred to hang newly captured suspects on the spot, or the unsympathetic words of an animalistic buffalo hunter who encased one of the brothers in a shrinking leather hide—"He'll stay till he's squoze to jelly ... till his head busts like a squashed melon"—this was a brutish series that attempted to interpret American frontier history in terms of the conflicting political passions that followed U.S. humiliation in the Vietnam War. Critic Robert MacKenzie summarized the intention and vulnerability of The Quest when he wrote that “Every generation remakes the Western in its own image; here it is the setting for the mean streets and starved spirits of modern urban life.”

Much imagination was expended in the attempt to revive the anachronistic genre. The predilection for fanciful disguises so popular in the 1960s on The Wild Wild West, appeared now in The Barbary Coast. There was a prime-time soap opera set on a modern Texas ranch (The Yellow Rose). To bring wit to Western drama James Garner, the popular leading man of the vintage Maverick program, remounted his horse to introduce one new series (Young Maverick) and to star in two others (Nichols and Bret Maverick).

To bring farce to the genre, there were cowboy situation comedies like Zorro and Son, Best of the West, and Gun Shy. Perhaps the most ambitious of these laughable Westerns, however, was Dusty's Trail, a syndicated series in 1973 that tried to resuscitate the genre by filling its cast with alumni of earlier sitcom hits such as Gilligan's Island, Petticoat Junction, and F Troop.

The expenditure of Hollywood imagination was not enough, however. As Table 11 indicates, whatever the stylization or gimmick, few Western series introduced since 1970 achieved even moderate success.

Table 11: Western Series Introduced since 1970
TitleYearsRatingRankTotal Ranked
Cade's County1971-7217.049*78
Nichols1971-7213.264*78
Alias Smith/Jones1971-7216.15578
Alias Smith/Jones 1972-739.672*75
Kung Fu1972-7319.232*75
Kung Fu1973-7418.73681
Dirty Sally197417.843*81
The Cowboys197415.859*81
Kung Fu1974-759.982*84
The New Land19747.98484
The Barbary Coast1975-7611.29397
Sara197613.479*97
The Quest1976-7712.991*101
The Young Pioneers1977-7813.593*109
Young Dan'l Boone1977-7813.888*109
The Oregon Trail1977-7814.382*109
How the West Was Won197821.417*109
How the West Was Won1978-7918.046112
Centennial1978-7919.533*112
Young Maverick1979-8013.488105
The Chisolms
The Chisolms1979-8013.2105
Bret Maverick1981-8217.734105
Best of the West1981-8213.971105
Zorro and Son1982-8312.678<98>
Gun Shy198312.182*98
The Yellow Rose1983-8410.190*101
Wildside198511.58297
*indicates a tie

Producers invested millions of dollars seeking a formula with which to regenerate viewer interest in Westerns. The most elaborate project was How the West Was Won. Inspired by the epic Cinerama motion picture from 1963 of the same name, it debuted in January 1976 as a made-for-TV feature called The Macahans. With its lush outdoor photography, sweeping sense of frontier history, energetic promotion, and veteran actor James Arness as its star, How the West Was Won appeared in February 1977 as a six-hour miniseries. It then appeared in the first half of 1978 as a weekly series. After reruns that summer, the program was dropped, only to re­appear for four months in early 1979 with nine new installments budgeted at $1.2 million per two-hour episode. Except for its original run in 1978, however, How the West Was Won failed to garner audiences large enough to justify its continuance.

Not only were video Westerns unsuccessful, their failure rate after 1970 was devastating. The majority of these programs lasted a half-season or less. Young Maverick was aired eight times. The New Land, Wildside, and Gun Shy appeared only six times each. The Oregon Trail was seen on four occasions. Only three episodes each of Young Dan'l Boone and The Young Pioneers were telecast. In the years 1972-74 Hec Ramsey rotated with three other series as part of The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie; but only ten installments of this Western were telecast, while others in the rotation—McMillan and Wife, Columbo, and McCloud—lasted for five seasons.

While Westerns in recent decades have been poorly received as weekly television fare, they also have failed as made-for-TV feature films and miniseries. In the twenty years be­tween October 1964 and July 1984, there were 1,693 dramatic productions filmed expressly for network television, the vast majority being movies broadcast on showcases such as The ABC Movie of the Week and NBC Wednesday Night at the Movies.

Significantly, only 92 of these films—little more than 5.4 percent—were Westerns. These ranged from the 26.5 hours of the miniseries Centennial, to TV features as diverse as the comedic Evil Roy Slade (February 18, 1972), the nostalgic The Wild, Wild West Revisited (May 9, 1979), the modern Rodeo Girl (September 17, 1980), and the youth-oriented Peter Lundy and the Medicine Hat Stallion (Novem­ber 6, 1977)—as well as Don Siegel's direction of Henry Fonda in Stranger on the Run (October 31, 1969), the memorable if contro­versial Indian saga The Mystic Warrior (May 20-21, 1984), and the more forgettable Indian tale The Legend of Walks Far Woman (May 30, 1982).

Table 12:
Made-for-TV Western Films and Miniseries, 1964-1984,
Percent ofPercent of
YearNumber/TotalProductionsYear Number/TotalProductions
19640/2019754/1053.8
19650/00 1976 11/90 12.2
19662/450.0 1977 6/123 4.9
19673/1030.0 1978 12/149 8.1
19681/147.1 1979 6/152 3.9
19692/306.7 1980 4/149 2.7
19705/4411.3 1981 2/125 1.6
19716/837.2 1982 3/116 2.6
19726/837.2 1983 4/120 3.3
19732/1071.9 1984 3/69 4.3
19747/1185.9

That the networks have been parsimonious in airing Western telefeatures and miniseries is made obvious by the statistics in Table 12. Except for the years around the U.S. bicentennial observances, made­for-TV Westerns have been rare, a small part of the annual totals.

As well as scarce, made-for-TV Westerns have been ratings disas­ters. In its survey of hit movies on U.S. television from 1961 through 1985, Variety listed 506 telecasts that garnered at least a Nielsen rating of 24.0. While several theatrical Westerns have achieved high rank­ings—Jeremiah Johnson tied for number 13, The Apple Dumpling Gang tied for number 44, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tied at number 46, plus several cowboy dramas starring John Wayne and Clint Eastwood—only 11 made-for-TV Westerns (actually only 10 different films) appear in this listing, little more than 2 percent of the total.

The most successful Western telefeature was Kenny Rogers As the Gambler, a film that exploited Rogers's hit phonograph record, "The Gambler." It was the most popular made-for-TV film in the 1979-80 season; and it was tied at number 58 in the survey published in Variety (see Table 13). Interestingly, the next highest rated made-for-TV Westerns were the two parts of a sequel miniseries, Kenny Rogers As the Gambler—The Adventure Continues, telecast more than three years after the original Rogers telefeature.

Table 13
Hit Made-for-TV Western Films
RankTitleRating/Share Date of Telecast
9*Kenny Rogers As the Gambler31.3/504/8/80
89*Kenny Rogers As the Gambler—
The Adventure Continues
(Part II)
29.6/4511/29/83
92*Kenny Rogers As the Gambler—
The Adventure Continues
(Part I)
29.5/42 11/28/83
92*Mrs. Sundance29.5/434/9/74
99*Alias Smith and Jones29.3/441/5/71
161*Run, Simon, Run27.5/4312/1/70
179*Hardcase27.2/402/1/72
203*The Over-the-Hill Gang26.8/4210/7/79
311*The Young Pioneers25.5/37 3/1/76
362*The Daughters of Joshua Cabe25.0/389/13/72
457*The Bravos24.2/381/9/72

Not only do these figures suggest the consistent failure of cowboy telefeatures, they also demonstrate that the Western had been moribund for a long time. Seven of the ranked telecasts were from the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the past decade only the Rogers efforts attracted substantial audiences. Of the others, three were light-hearted Westerns (The Over-the-Hill Gang, Mrs. Sundance, and Alias Smith and Jones) which parodied the genre. The popularity of several can be understood in terms of attractiveness of their stars: Burt Reynolds in Run, Simon, Run; Buddy Ebsen in The Daughters of Joshua Cabe; plus the three telecasts featuring Kenny Rogers. When the record of made-for-TV Westerns is added to the performance of regular Western series since 1970, it seems obvious that Americans have abandoned the genre.

Clearly, the cultural synchronization—the matching of popular values with the themes and perspectives inherent in an entertainment form—needed for continued commercial and social acceptance has been lost. Western heroes, now out of joint with popular thought, have ridden into oblivion.

That the TV Western has perished is made all the more certain by the nature of television. Unlike media such as radio, musical recording, and literature, TV in the United States still courts an undifferentiated mass viewership. Where other commercial media serve a multi­plicity of small demographic units, network video remains tightly competitive between three corporations seeking the same broad, di­verse audience for their offerings.

For almost thirty years radio has cultivated narrowcasting as an answer to the financial ruin guaranteed by continuing to seek the widest audience via broadcasting. The recording industry today is not just Top-40 popular music. It is a variegated phenomenon offering com­mercial musical products for a diversity of tastes. From fancy bookstores to local magazine racks the narrowest literary interests are accommodated in American publishing.

Even so, programming on network television remains a mass medium in which a program survives only if it delivers acceptably high ratings. It is not enough that a series delivers a few million viewers; it must attract many millions of viewers. There are thousands of radio stations, records, and publishers, but there are only three outlets for hit TV programming: ABC, CBS, and NBC. While loyal readers continue to purchase the formulaic novels of Louis L'Amour, relative to a television audience they constitute a small following. While country-western music is a lucrative part of the music and radio industries, this related taste has not translated into sizable support for video Westerns.

The Western is dead in television because it is no longer relevant or tasteful. Economic and technological realities of the medium only assure that it will not be successful until it regains mass acceptability. Ironically, the generation that once made the Western the most prolific form of TV programming has lived to see a rare occurrence in American popular culture: the death of a genre.

 

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