The Domestic Western

Despite the departure of sensitive programmers like David Levy, there were major changes emerging in the TV Western by the mid-1960s. The genre on TV was experiencing a de-emphasis of violence. Fights and killings would continue to occur, but by the end of the decade dramatic savagery was waning.

Academicians like George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communications of the University of Pennsylvania could report that in the period 1967-69 those involved in violence in prime-time drama, either as victims or violators, dropped from 73 percent to 64 percent; that in comic situations the figure fell from 22 percent to 14 percent; and that the weekly casualty list fell from 437 in 1967 to 134 in 1969, and from 182 violent deaths in 1967 to 46 dead per week in 1969. Certainly such moderation resulted in part from chronic popular criticism, as well as attacks from influential leaders such as the chairman of the FCC; but it also seems to have been influenced by the shifting tastes of the mass audience.

As a society given to commercial crazes—or socialized to consume in those periodic bursts of purchasing enthusiasm that are the bases of such waves of popularity—more than five years of cowboy dramas had satisfied much of the mass appetite for the genre. This was noticeable in a general decline in ratings for Westerns throughout the 1960s. It was reflected further in the failure rate for new cowboy series. Between 1965 and 1968, for example, there were 21 Westerns introduced in the Fall seasons. Of that number only 4 lasted more than two years—13 failed in one season or less; 1 lasted a season and one-half; and 3 finished their second seasons before being canceled. Significantly, no new Westerns were offered in the fall of 1969.

The most significant indicator of the change in popular tastes, however, was evidenced in the domestication of the genre—and in its modified product, the domestic Western. While most adult cowboy dramas dealt with law officers and wandering do-gooders, this type of Western was based upon family life. Such series usually focused on sprawling cattle empires or other grand enterprises maintained by rugged individualists. In programs usually running 60 or 90 minutes these offerings depicted respectable men and women with democratic values, pioneering types who honorably fought natural and human adversities in order to thrive in the West. Importantly, too, this domestic variety was the only type of Western to survive in the late 1960s and into the following decade.

Faced with a diversity of challenges to life, property, and civilized standards, families in domestic Westerns came together weekly to fight for their frontier existences. Certainly this theme was not unfamiliar in literature and motion pictures. Moreover, television West­erns emphasizing family ties had appeared in the late 1950s at a time when the more rugged style was at its peak. Beginning with programs like The Rifleman in 1958, where Lucas McCain frequently lectured his son on social responsibility, or even the short-lived Buckskin, which the same year featured a widow boardinghouse keeper and her ten year old son facing life in pioneer Montana, homey feelings were integrated into the adult genre.

By the mid-1960s, however, the only Westerns popular on TV were those offering families or family-like units in contests with a range of antagonists. Typically, in The High Chaparral the Cannon family and its employees fought to keep their large ranch viable in the Arizona desert near Tucson. In lusher surroundings Lancer concerned a cattle and timber empire in the San Joaquin Valley of Cali­fornia, a 100,000 acre ranch headed by Murdoch Lancer, his two quarrelsome sons, and a young female ward. More austere was the Kansas homestead owned, operated, and defended by the Pride family in The Road West.

By its themes and characterizations, the domestic Western represented a modification of the lone rider heroics so recognizable in most early adult cowboy dramas. Such change was best epitomized in The Big Valley. Set in the San Joaquin Valley of central California, this series was headed by a woman. Matriarchy was not unknown in the real West, but in the video West women were almost always subordinate to men. After all, the Western was a masculine genre, and the principal audience for the TV Western was male. Thus the appearance of Barbara Stanwyck as strong-willed Victoria Barkley, ruler of the vast Barkley ranch, was unprecedented. Moreover, assisted in the enterprise by a daughter and three rugged sons, Victoria Barkley made The Big Valley a popular offering, enduring four seasons and 111 hour-long installments.

The domestic Western covered a wide chronological and geo­graphical range. Daniel Boone dealt with the historic Boone living with his family in backwoods Kentucky in the late eighteenth century. Set in the 1960s, Empire (later called Redigo) featured the Garrett family ranch in Santa Fe and those who dealt with its welfare in the modern West.

The ruggedness of Wyoming was a favorite locale for several domestic Westerns. The Virginian (later called The Men from Shiloh) concerned the folks who owned and operated the Shiloh ranch near Medicine Bow. Laramie, an early domestic Western that ended its run in late 1963, concerned two friends who owned a combination cattle ranch and stagecoach depot in the 1880s. In a twist on such series, The Monroes treated the five recently orphaned Monroe children—pioneer immigrants from Illinois and aged from 6 to 18 years—trying to maintain their parents' Teton valley homestead against assorted challenges.

Wherever or whenever they were situated, domestic Westerns spoke of land and home and close social relationships, themes well understood by most viewers. The Western may have thrived when it depicted gun fights and heroes who rode in from the mountains or prairies to bring peace to the valley, but by the end of the 1960s American audiences responded best to stories underscoring family units acting together. Such representations extended from the action in "The Great Safe Robbery"—an episode of The Big Valley aired November 21, 1966, in which Victoria Barkley and her daughter were kidnapped by bank robbers but eventually rescued by the three Bark­ley brothers—to the sentimentalism expressed in "A Love to Remem­ber"—an episode of The Virginian aired October 29, 1969, wherein the Virginian expressed to his sweetheart his deepest feelings on the meaning of life in the West.

Girl: Tell me more about it—that place you're going to build some­day.
Virginian: [It's] in Wyoming country. The river runs through there, called the Sweetwater—snows some in the winter. But in the spring the whole valley comes up green. Man could get a couple-a sections pretty cheap. Start a herd—even a family, maybe.
Girl: In that order?
Virginian: Well, that all depends. You start a herd all by yourself. My understanding's that a family takes a certain amount of co­operation.
Girl: Seems to me I've heard that myself.
Virginian: Tell you this though—be a fine place to watch a bunch of kids grow up.
Girl: I can see it: big old house on a hill, and beams in the living room, and a great stone fireplace with a bearskin rug in front of it. And trees, oak trees all around.
Virginian: That's funny. I did kinda have a spot picked out for the house. It's on a hill. There's a good stand of oak up there, too. How'd you guess that?

At a time when video violence was under fire from citizens and government, the domestic Western offered an antidote. Its reliance upon sentimentality often meant the downplaying of violent conflict. With families sitting around dinner tables or visiting town together, there was less opportunity for brutal conflict. Thus, while a rugged series like Lancer occasionally offered a fast-draw confrontation or a he-man fight over a lady, it tended to accentuate deeper themes such as the story of the growing love between an orphaned child entertainer and her emotionally reserved spinster aunt in "Little Darling of the Sierras" (November 18, 1969); or the O. Henryesque tale of the Lancer men selflessly giving treasured possessions to neighbors needier than themselves in "The Gifts" (October 28, 1969).

The domestic Western that most successfully showed the pioneer family in combat with frontier adversities was Bonanza. In fact, this series pioneered the programming style. For ten of its almost fourteen seasons on NBC, it was rated among the top TV attractions. Furthermore, for three consecutive years, 1964-67, it was the most watched series in the nation.

Bonanza told of the Cartwright family—a widower and his three sons—and its experiences operating the Ponderosa ranch, a timberland and cattle empire in the Comstock Lode country in and around Virginia City, Nevada. Blending action, dramatic characterization, and human interest plots, Bonanza projected a family that was strong yet emotionally sensitive. As its patriarch, Ben Cartwright was a tough, rational pioneer whose honesty and civic instincts were reflected in his sons: the intense Adam, the physically strong but spiritually gentle Hoss, and the impetuous Little Joe.

The sense of family love and struggle for the common good so essential to the domestic Western was well described in the publicity kit that accompanied syndicated Bonanza programs:

The sight of the Cartwrights charging down a hillside on horseback—Old Ben with his great mane of hair whipping behind him like a Biblical prophet; Adam, with the deadly eyes of a swooping hawk; Hoss, so huge of chest and shoulder that the giant bay under him looked puny by comparison; and Little Joe, a wild rebel yell on his lips—was enough to cow the coolest man. And this close-knit family of men stood between the silver barons and the most extensive stretch of timberland in the Comstock Lode area.

The Cartwrights controlled the vast Ponderosa, a ranch that extended from the lush shores of Lake Tahoe down the snow-capped slopes of the Sierras and east to the desert-like environs of Virginia City. Over part of its thousand square miles roamed 10,000 head of cattle, grazing in the grassy lowlands; the rest of the acreage was covered with thickly wooded hills, studded with magnificent evergreens.

The job of patrolling and protecting their holdings, of guarding the treasured territory against cattle rustlers and timber raiders, was a task calling for the utmost vigilance and bravery, the sharpest eyes and the surest aim. The Cartwrights possessed these qualities and more. Woe to the stranger who set foot on their land. Dozens of dead could testify to the futility of expeditions organized to take over the Ponderosa. But the Cartwrights knew the mining tycoons would never give up trying. They and their adversaries also knew that as long as they were together, the Cartwrights would never be beaten.

While Bonanza stories revolved about the family unit as it battled for survival against jealous rivals, the series emphasized human concern and charity. If in concept the family was the primary social unit of mutual support and shared love, Bonanza accentuated the fact that even in times of great challenge, humane interests were critical to lasting, effective social values. Typically, in "Pursued" (October 2 and 9, 1966) the Cartwrights endured local antagonism to offer sanctuary and medical assistance to a Mormon family being harassed by local religious bigots. In "My Brother's Keeper" (April 7, 1963), brotherly love was at issue in Adam's disgust with frontier life, an emotion he openly expressed after accidentally shooting Little Joe. In "A Dream to Dream" (April 14, 1968), Hoss interceded in a family dispute, rescuing a woman and her two children from an abusive, alcoholic husband.

By the end of the decade only two Westerns enjoyed sizable fol­lowings: the domestic Bonanza and the more traditional Gunsmoke. In the case of Gunsmoke, however, its longevity was directly related to the ability of its producers to bring to the series the spirit of the domestic Western.

In Gunsmoke the family was implied. After years together, Matt, Kitty, Doc, Chester, Festus, and other secondary characters made Dodge City the residence for a family of interactive frontier types who chose to abide by the law and to oppose together those who broke it. In an interview in 1985, William Blinn—who wrote for Gunsmoke in the late 1960s—explained the familial qualities of the series.

Certainly, there have been very few shows that created an on-camera family as well as they did without having any blood ties. But between Matt and Doc and Festus and Chester, when he was there—I mean there was an ensemble feeling of caring and interrelationships and interconnectiveness. I wish I had friends like that. I wish all my relationships were as non-devious and non-manipulative as these were because they were a classic extended family.

Interestingly, Gunsmoke lasted an extra eight seasons because it was able to reinvent itself as a domestic Western. In fact, by 1967 its ratings had collapsed so severely it was canceled by CBS. Only the personal intervention of network president William S. Paley rescued the series. A change of time slots, an emphasis upon relevant human drama, and the introduction of a young new character, the handsome gunsmith Newly O'Brien, revived its popularity. As evident in Table 9, changes by the fall of 1967 had startling results almost immediately for the series.

Table 9: Gunsmoke Ratings History, 1955-75
Season Rank AverageAverageViewers
Rating Share(in millions)
1955-56 ****
1956-57 832.7**
1957-58 143.1**
1958-59 139.660*
1959-60 140.364.6*
1960-61 1 37.362.2 17,244
1961-62 328.347.313,594
1963-642023.539.5 12,030
*Figures not available.
**Indicates tie.

It is significant that Gunsmoke continued to thrive into the 1970s precisely because it developed the type of humanistic flavor found in the success of Bonanza. Aired Mondays at 7:30 P.M. (EST), Gunsmoke reached a new and younger audience than the graying viewership that maintained it during its first 12 years on Saturday nights at 10 P.M.(EST). Now the series highlighted matters that related to the concerns of its refreshed viewership. Here were stories concerning children and young adults; and family themes were accentuated, be it Festus visiting his hillfolk kin ("Hard-Luck Henry" aired October 23, 1967), Doc Adams seeking a home for newly born orphaned triplets ("Baker's Dozen" aired December 25, 1967), or Matt Dillon rescuing his "family"—Newly, Doc, Kitty, and Festus—from murderous bounty hunters ("The Long Night" aired February 17, 1969).

The towering heroics of Matt Dillon softened as the series developed loyalties with a younger audience, itself affected by profound reevaluations underway in the United States in the late 1960s. The revived Gunsmoke might involve blacks or Hispanics or Indians in a drama about racial prejudice, or the military might be the target of a story critical of institutional biases. While Gunsmoke was always a morality play, according to producer John Mantley in 1970, "the morality of 15 years ago was too simple and basic. You can't get away with that today."''

Domestic Westerns had staying power. Into the 1960s, as governmental and private pressure groups increasingly assailed the genre for excessive displays of violence, most of the more forceful series were canceled. The domestic programs, however, enjoyed lengthy runs. While the glamorous photography of a series like Cimarron Strip, or the action in Custer or Hondo or The Dakotas found no widespread acceptance, several domestic Westerns endured for years—and for many more years as syndicated reruns.

By the end of the decade, it was clear that only as a vehicle demon­strating familial themes was the genre viable on television. Even by this date, however, except for Gunsmoke and Bonanza, few TV cowboy series remained. As Les Brown explained it in Variety in early 1969—under the front-page banner headline, "TV Westerns Bite the Dust"—the genre was approaching extinction: “A little gunplay, a fist in the gut, an occasional trampling in the stam­pede, a saloon brawl, a ranch on fire, a kick in the ribs, a ride or a fall off a cliff—these have been the lifeblood of the classic American morality tale, and now they're no longer considered civilized.” In explaining this cultural collapse Brown indicted the most chronic critics of television: "The militants against violence have shot down the TV cowboy."

It is too simplistic to conclude that persistent criticism of violence, even from powerful people and institutions, eventually destroyed the video Western. Certainly there was a diminishing of TV violence as measured in the late 1960s. That this trend paralleled the ascendancy of domestic Westerns and the demise of more aggressive cowboy dramas is obvious.

However, when the Western was gone from television, violence reappeared. As late as November 1984 one interest group, the National Coalition on TV Violence, could claim that video violence had risen 75 percent since 1980 and was now at record levels." While violence returned to TV with a vengeance, the Western was unable to regain its position in network television.

Furthermore, if one accepts the boundaries of violence described by Dr. Rose K. Goldsen, it seems clear that the Western was not the only TV genre to assault popular sensibilities with murder and mayhem—yet only the Western perished.

What kind of violence? Physical violence, emotional violence, violence to bodily integrity, violence to sense of self, violence by direct contact, violence by remote control, violence to one's peers, violence to one's superiors, violence by authority figures, violence by the powerful, violence by the deviant, violence by the frustrated, violence as a norm, violence as pathological behavior, violence for vengeance, violence to correct miscarriage of justice, violence by men to men, men to women, women to women, women to men, violence about sex, violence in sex, violence by animals or involving animals, violence by children or to children, violence whose consequences are shown, violence whose con­sequences are inferred, violence that is justified, violence in a measure appropriate to some previous injury, face-to-face acts of violence, insti­tutional violence, violence in war . . . I could go on.

The genre died for reasons other than its violence. Had it waned simply because audience appetite for cowboy shows had been glutted, according to the cyclical pattern noticeable in all TV programming, its return should be predictable; but it never returned to popularity. While there were Western series introduced in the 1970s and 1980s, they have been dismal failures. That being the case, the death of the Western must be sought elsewhere.

The television Western, even in its most violent manifestations, flourished because it meshed harmoniously with widely accepted social and political views of its times. If it is no longer viable, the reasons for its fall must be related to fundamental sociopolitical changes that render the genre obsolete. The roots of these basic shifts are found in the reevaluations in popular thinking that began in the 1960s. To understand this relationship between the viability of an entertainment form and the development of popular thought, it first is necessary to consider the TV Western in terms of the principal motifs through which it related to an American audience.

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