The American West in Film and Television: Changing Times, What Happened to TV Westerns?

Arizona’s Official Western Film Historian Charlie LeSueur

During the peak of their popularity, 26 Westerns aired weekly during primetime. By the early 1970s, only “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” remained in primetime’s television lineup. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and violent campus protests against the Vietnam War contributed to the mounting pressure on networks to reduce the violence in Westerns, but the primary catalyst for cancellations was that younger audiences found Westerns and rural programming unrelatable in the face of social and urban turmoil. Networks responded by cancelling not only highly rated Westerns like “The Virginian” and “The High Chaparral,” but also many of the long-running comedies (“Green Acres,” “The Beverly Hillbillies”), variety shows (“Hee Haw,” “Ed Sullivan”), and dramas that appealed to older and more rural viewers.

Replacement shows ushered in a new era of contemporary programming that captivated younger audiences with “All in the Family,” and repackaged violence in a modern context with shows like “The Mod Squad.” This program delves into the backstory of television’s “rural purge” and its effect on Westerns, and explores renewed interest in the genre as cable and streaming services develop original content for today’s audiences. Hosted by Arizona’s Official Western Film Historian Charlie LeSueur.

Included with museum admission; free to museum members.