Actor James Arness, who for 20 years played Marshall Matt Dillon on TV’s Gunsmoke, has passed away at the age of 88.

In today’s 500 channel age, when TV network PR crows over ratings numbers that would be rounding errors in Gunsmoke’s time, it’s worth noting what television ratings were like when Gunsmoke roamed the airwaves (and there were just 3 commercial networks).

The show began in 1955, and by the 1959-60 television season it averaged a 40.3 household rating for the entire season (may have been higher earlier, but 1960 is the earliest year we have data from).

Top 20 Prime Time Broadcast Programs, October 1959 – April 1960:

1 Gunsmoke CBS 40.3 65
2 Wagon Train NBC 38.4 61
3 Have Gun Will Travel CBS 34.7 53
4 Danny Thomas CBS 31.1 45
5 Red Skelton CBS 30.8 48
6 Father Knows Best CBS 29.7 43
6 77 Sunset Strip ABC 29.7 47
8 The Price Is Right NBC 29.2 45
9 Wanted: Dead Or Alive CBS 28.7 44
10 Perry Mason CBS 28.3 45
11 The Real McCoys ABC 28.2 44
12 The Ed Sullivan Show CBS 28.0 42
13 Bing Crosby ABC 27.7 43
14 Rifleman ABC 27.5 41
15 The Ford Show NBC 27.4 43
16 The Lawman ABC 26.2 39
17 Dennis The Menace CBS 26.0 41
18 Cheyenne ABC 25.9 41
19 Rawhide CBS 25.8 43
20 Maverick ABC 25.2 39

To put that in perspective, even with all its DVR viewing added in, the ratings champion of the 2010-11 season, Wednesday’s American Idol averaged a 14.4 household rating / 23 share. And don’t forget that all those Gunsmoke viewers were watching live.

Of course, the main reason for that disparity is that broadcast TV primetime viewing has declined steadily since the early 80’s as viewers migrated to ad supported cable.

TV by the Numbers owes a special debt to the show, without which there would be no “Gunsmoke Rule”.

Because comparing show’s broadcast TV ratings today to those in distant past years to prove those past shows should never have been cancelled is patently nonsense, we christened the “Gunsmoke Rule” which states:

“The Gunsmoke Rule”: No comparing the ratings of any individual show this season to a show in any season except the previous one. “How could CBS have canceled Gunsmoke, for some dreck like CSIGunsmoke pulled a 40 rating in 1960!

And without James Arness it would never have existed.

Farewell, Marshall.

Posted by:TV By The Numbers

blog comments powered by Disqus