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Gunsmoke was a highly-popular Western television show that successfully made the move from radio. It ran for a total of 20 seasons, but it experienced some dips in ratings over the course of its overall successful run. Gunsmoke producer John Mantley once explained why some “frustrating” producer changes resulted in many Western fans tuning out.

‘Gunsmoke’ ratings ‘slumped’ after Dennis Weaver left

'Gunsmoke' Milburn Stone as Doc Adams and Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen. Curtis look at Stone with a cigarette in his mouth. Both of them are wearing Western costumes.
L-R: Milburn Stone as Doc Adams and Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen | CBS via Getty Images

According to John Peel’s book, The Gunsmoke Years, the Western encountered some serious hardships over the course of its airing. It went from having massive success to “slumping” in the ratings, which is why CBS fired producer Norman Macdonnell. Mantley explained that between Dennis Weaver’s exit and the switch to color television, the ratings slipped.

“The show at this point was in something of a slump,” Mantley said. “Dennis Weaver had left, and color would be introduced the following show. When we took over, Gunsmoke was in the middle of the ratings and slipping.”

Weaver would regularly slip in and out of his interest in the Western show, Gunsmoke. However, it remained a stable gig for him when he decided to stick with it. Meanwhile, some other cast members remained with the show for its entire duration, such as James Arness.

‘Gunsmoke’ producer pointed to ‘frustrating’ Western show changes to explain rating drops

Mantley told Peel that Macdonnell made some changes to Gunsmoke “frustrated” Western fans. As a result, they started to tune out. He believed that some of the creative decisions made before he joined the production caused the ratings to slip, which he was able to recover for a period of time.

“I think the reason was that Norman Macdonnell – who had produced the show for eight years – got into the same kind of problem that all producers do with this kind of show,” Mantley said. “Gunsmoke in the early days was almost a no-drama show.”

Mantley continued: “There was a short-hand: ‘I’m going to kill you because you killed my brother;’ ‘We’ve got to cut ’em off at the pass;’ and there was a necessary shoot-out at the end of each show. Toward the end of Norman’s reign, he became so frustrated with this sort of format that he began experimenting with somewhat unusual forms of the show.”

However, Mantley believed that Western fans didn’t like this change to Gunsmoke.

“The audience didn’t want that,” Mantley stated. “They wanted the traditional no-drama. I suspect that’s why the ratings were slipping. The cast was the same, and very polished by this time, and very, very good together.”

The Western show inspired spinoff series ‘Dirty Sally’


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The Western behemoth Gunsmoke ultimately met its demise in 1975, lasting a staggering 20 seasons. Nevertheless, that didn’t mark the end of its legacy. It continues to stand in good favor with longtime fans of the show in modern times.

Gunsmoke had a spinoff a year before its cancelation with Dirty Sally. The story followed Jeanette Nolan as an old woman named Sally Fergus. She joins a young former outlaw as they travel to California to pan for gold. However, Dirty Sally only lasted for one season of 14 episodes.