QUESTION: What was the most popular program in television history? How did it impact America’s popular culture?
ANSWER: In the book “TV’s Greatest Hits”, Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh rank Gunsmoke as America’s most popular show “by a wide margin.” In terms of yearly ranking, Gunsmoke is still the most successful weekly prime time drama.
The series was set in Dodge City, Kansas, during the 1870s when it was a wild frontier town of the Old West. The radio version of Gunsmoke ran from 1952 to 1961, and the TV program began in September of 1955.
It would remain on network television for 20 years with 640 episodes. Law and Order also lasted for 20 years but it lagged with 456 episodes.
Gunsmoke was the first of an avalanche of television westerns. At the peak, there were 30 prime time westerns on the air. Gunsmoke was the most successful while Bonanza had the number two slot.
As far as advertisers were concerned, Gunsmoke had terrible demographics. Most viewers were older and outside the age limit normally targeted by advertisers. Gunsmoke’s audience, however, was so large that according to “TV’s Greatest Hits,” “who cared if they all wore dentures?”
The series was off the air for 20 years when the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN) brought it back. The TV code today is different from the 1960’s, and some of the violent scenes are now censored. In 1995, CBN aired some never-before-syndicated Gunsmoke episodes. Why had these episodes not been seen since their original network airings in 1962-65?
They were in black and white, and stations preferred hour long episodes in color.