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TV Westerns - 1970s
The western was a staple of television programming in the 1950s and 1960s, and was a mainstay of American entertainment in film, radio and popular fiction for decades before that. Some of the earliest TV westerns, such as The Lone Ranger, were continuations of programs that had been popular for years as radio dramas.
Of the four longest-running TV westerns, which is your favorite?
By the 1970s, however, the television western had entered a period of decline from which it has never recovered. Not only was there a backlash against television violence in general, but networks were also beginning to cater to a more urban, sophisticated demographic, which they felt could command higher advertising rates.
Even programs with contemporary rural themes, such as Mayberry, RFD and Green Acres were being canceled (in some cases despite ratings that did not merit cancellation).
A number of long-running westerns were canceled in the late 1960s and 1970s, including The High Chaparral, The Virginian and Bonanza. The bedrock of the western genre, however (and arguably the best TV western ever), was Gunsmoke, which began as a radio program in 1952, and first appeared on television in 1955. The end of Gunsmoke's 20-year run on CBS was a clear indication that the age of the traditional TV western was over.
There were occasional attempts throughout the decade to see if the once-venerable genre had any life remaining. Most of these new shows lasted only a single season – some not even that long. Only one series, ABC's Alias Smith and Jones, lasted more than one season (1971-1973).
A few non-traditional westerns had some success, however. These shows were set in the 19th-century American west, but differed in other ways from the traditional western:
- Kung Fu (ABC, 1972–1975): David Carradine starred as a Shaolin monk traveling the American Old West, forgoing guns in favor of his Shaolin philosophy and martial arts skills. The series was revived in 1993 as Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, which ran for 4 seasons, again starring David Carradine.
- Little House on the Prairie (NBC, 1974-1982): based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's books about a pioneer family on the American frontier in the 1800s. Three made-for-TV movies followed: Little House: Look Back to Yesterday (1983), Little House: Bless All the Dear Children (1983), and Little House: The Last Farewell (1984).
- The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (NBC, 1977-1978): a frontier man (played by Dan Haggerty), is wrongly accused of murder, and hides from bounty hunters in the mountains, where he befriends a grizzly bear. The series was based on the 1974 movie of the same name, and was followed by two 90-minute TV specials and a 1982 TV movie, The Capture of Grizzly Adams, in which Adams finally proves his innocence.
By the end of the 1970s, television networks were experimenting with the mini-series format. A few western mini-series were produced during this period:
- How the West Was Won (ABC, 1977): a pioneer family, the Macahans, move west during the time of the American Civil War. This follow-up to the 1976 TV movie The Macahans became a weekly series in 1978, followed by several made-for-TV movies In 1979.
- The Young Pioneers (ABC, 1978): a pair of young newlyweds settle in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. Based on two novels written by Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder).
- The Chisholms (CBS, 1979): a pioneer family travels west in the mid 1800s. The mini-series was followed by a short-lived regular series in 1980.
One of the great TV theme songs:
Can the TV Western Come Back?
The TV western has never regained the level of popularity it once had. Fans of the genre wait for that one new break-out hit that could return the western to prominence in the copy-cat medium of television.
In the meantime, fortunately, many classic TV westerns are still available as reruns, on DVD, or for free online.