Saddle Up! A Brief History of TV Westerns

TV Westerns

During the 1950s, there were only three major TV networks — CBS, ABC, and NBC. During that time period, over 100 different TV shows aired that all fell into the same genre.

What genre was that? If you guessed TV westerns, you’re correct! 

What was behind the great TV western era? What were some of the most popular TV westerns? Saddle up and let’s ride back in time through the fascinating history of TV westerns!

Why Were TV Westerns So Popular?

The westward expansion of America is undoubtedly one of the most romanticized time periods in US history.

Most westerns are set between the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the turn of the 20th century. To be sure, it was an enthralling turning point in American history, from the wide-open plains that offered anonymous freedom (and the promise of fortune) to the eternal themes of justice, loyalty, and family. Cowboys were heroes who were strong, reliable, and decent — if not a little rough around the edges.

The truth is that TV western shows helped to define America as a nation. They instilled in viewers the values of honesty, hard work, determination, and racial tolerance. Justice always prevailed, and there were always other important moral lessons to learn along the way.

What Were Some Popular TV Western Shows?

“The Great Train Robbery” of 1903, a 10-minute short film ironically made in New York, officially kicked off the western film boom. From the silent film era through the 1950s, at least 20% of all feature films were westerns. This was the era of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood — names that are still iconic today.

It didn’t take long for our love of the “wild west” to cross over into the American living room. Some of the best TV shows from the era include:

  • Bonanza
  • The High Chaparral
  • Daniel Boone
  • The Lone Ranger
  • The Rifleman
  • Zorro
  • The Roy Rogers Show
  • The Virginian
  • Maverick
  • Gunsmoke
  • Cheyenne

By the late 1950s, there were 48 different TV westerns on the air, with 30 of them airing during prime time. Like everything else, though, times were about to change.

When Did the TV Western Era End?

The 1960s brought unprecedented changes to American society. The Vietnam War was raging, the rebellious “hippie” movement was going mainstream, and the generation gap was widening.

Meanwhile, the country was transforming from a rural society to an urban one. Traditions fell by the wayside in favor of political change and the fight for racial and gender equality. In the late 1960s, people started to blame TV violence for the failings of modern society, which delivered the final death blow to the TV western era.

Interestingly, there’s been renewed interest in the genre in recent decades, both on TV and on the big screen. New shows like Deadwood and Yellowstone have been well-received, along with “modern western” films like Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, and True Grit.

The History of TV Westerns: Now You Know

The era of TV westerns may be behind us, but their legacy will live on forever. If you’ve never seen some of these iconic shows yourself, why not watch a few old episodes on YouTube?

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