Who Shot the Sheriff?
The history of the Western on television is without precedent. No form of mass entertainment has been so dominant and then so insignificant as the Western. Where once hoof beats and six-guns were a familiar part of prime-time diversion, they and the other accouterments of the cowboy genre are found now only in syndicated reruns, rare feature films, and occasional made-for-TV movies. Where in the 1960s media sociologist marshal McLuhan could contend that spiritually Americans then living in Bonanza-land, contemporary society evidences no fascination with the symbolism and mystique of the video Old West.
That the TV Western is dead is obvious. It is statistically verifiable that when Westerns are televised not enough viewers are interested. It is also plain that by the late 1980s the three major networks avoid them because viewer disinterest has been evident for almost two decades. What is not clear, however, is why Americans have rejected the genre. What needs to be understood is how television viewers could have adored and then abandoned the Western so definitively. The book attempts to explain such a development.
Network television in the United States is a big business serving a massive audience via a mass medium. It is, however, a risky and competitive enterprise. By promising large numbers of viewers, networks attract as advertisers mass producers eager to sell to the mass market. Sponsors pay according to audience size. By delivering audiences larger than its competitors, a network is able to charge the highest advertising rates. For obvious reasons the networks are concerned with "selling" their programs to the public. Offerings that deliver a sufficient number of viewers are retained; those not attractive enough are terminated. In the case of the Western, however, it is not just a single program or a series that has failed—it is an entire genre and its failure has been chronic.
TV in the United States does not operate in a vacuum. It effects and is affected by the society it serves. Historically, successful programming is a matter of relevance that has been revealed in a mix of commercialism, social relevance, tastes that run in cycles, demographic influences, and sensitivities toward national political and cultural matters. If a program or genre is popular, its success is based on a relevant combination of these factors. Conversely, if a show or entertainment form is rejected by the mass audience, the cause of its demise can be found in these factors. When successful programming is on TV, Americans are on TV. Therefore, when treating the history of the video Western one is tracing not only the record of a genre, but the evolution of U.S. society during the past four decades.
This is a history of cultural life and death on American television. As a consideration of the Western, it is a discussion of a socially relevant type of storytelling, a thriving cultural attraction whose symbols and rhetoric helped define American society for almost a century. As an investigation of the disappearance of that genre from network prime-time television, this is an inquiry into the flowering and withering of a mass diversion whose value-laden conventions were once a plentiful part of evening entertainment in the United States.
The Western arrived with the first TV sets in the late 1940s. From the outset it was well received; but for the Western to have been successful on television it had to have been culturally "acceptable" to the mass audience. As with other entertainment genres, the success of the video Western was based on synchronization between qualities inherent within the genre and values relevant to American life at the time. In an era characterized by East-West confrontation and new national and international initiatives for the United States, the Western stories and symbols fit the temper of the time. Their political, military, social, economic, and spiritual implications were most appropriate.
For a people seeking direction and justification, the Western offered purposeful explanations. Its overwhelming popularity was neither a fad nor a function of cyclical patterns of cultural taste. In an unprecedented manner the video Western captured the national imagination because many Americans understood themselves and their civilization in terms of the genre. Always a militaristic art form, the Western spoke especially well the language of Cold War America.
The failure of the genre on television in more recent years, therefore, raises serious questions. Has it temporarily passed out of favor, or has the TV Western permanently ceased to be relevant to Americans? If its video record for a long time has been dismal, who does it continue to appear, however limitedly, in formulaic novels, occasional feature films, and disastrously short-lived TV series? Was it undermined, as many are quick to conclude, by being overexposed on television, or was it destroyed by more profound shifts in the attitudes of its audience? If it is now dead as a popular art form, what does this imply for the moral and ideological messages traditionally communicated through the genre? Should the video Western now be considered an historic relic, or can it be revitalized and again contribute to the entertaining of mass America?
In treating such questions, this study becomes more than a nostalgic chronicle of a lost TV genre. Indeed, seeking to understand the demise of the television Western demands an analysis of the interrelationship between popular culture, television, and sociopolitical development in the United States during the past four decades.