Classic Video Showplace

“Bonanza” Origins

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For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.

Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on ATVN with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.


Hopefully you have been watching episodes of the legendary show Bonanza on ATVN, along with reading some of our earlier blog entries focusing on the show’s legacy and a few unique stories on two of its larger than life actors – Michael Landon (“Little Joe”) and Dan Blocker (“Hoss” Cartwright).

However, many people don’t know that many of the first-season episodes of this program are rarely seen…but YOU can see these unique shows this month on the Astound TV Network!

Bonanza, despite what turned out to be a very long run of successes, did not have the easiest time getting–and then staying–on the air.  This seems hard to believe, in retrospect, as it eventually became one of the most successful television programs in the 1960s and arguably the most beloved western show of all time.

First of all, the executive producers (Dan Dartort and Mark Roberts) of Bonanza faced a crowded field of shows with similar themes to pitch to network television studios.  Remember, in 1959, there were only three options.  CBS (first in the ratings the previous year with a very strong returning programming lineup), NBC and ABC all had plenty of options for new western shows.  Among the new shows with western backgrounds looking for a television home at this time included: Rawhide, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Man and the Challenge, Bandwagon, and Tales of the Riverbank … all were produced pilots that spring.

There was also pressure for networks to add other new shows like The Untouchables (produced by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who CBS wanted to keep happy to have them continue churning out I Love Lucy hour-long “specials”) along with soon to be favorites Dennis The Menace, Hawaiian Eye and Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone.

Once signed by NBC for the first season, Bonanza quickly saw resistance from network executives for its writing style.  It was different from other like-westerns for its storylines that focused more on the characters and how they related to each other and relied less on the typical “life on the range” stories and other usual dramatic themes of the old west.  Another concern was that–at the time of the show’s debut–none of the four central stars were well-established actors in Hollywood, and the network worried people wouldn’t “feel” for the characters.

Furthermore, Bonanza was atypical from other shows in that the early episodes dealt with issues like racism, bigotry and anti-semitism.

Other knocks against the new show included financial concerns.

It was one of the few shows broadcast in color (which more than tripled its expense compared to its black-and-white counterparts).  Plus, adding in the cost of renting horses for the show and the initial decision to choose the shooting locations in the expensive Riverside Country, California helped to make it one of the most expensive westerns of the time period.

NBC didn’t help matters with its scheduling.  Initially, Bonanza aired on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. opposite popular Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show on ABC, and, on CBS, a perennial Top-10 Favorite, Perry Mason.  While first year ratings for Bonanza were not poor, it still finished far behind CBS’s Saturday night lineup and NBC seriously considered canceling the show after just that first season.

Rumor has it that NBC kept the show because its corporate parent, Radio Corporation of America (RCA), used the show to spur sales of RCA-manufactured color television sets (RCA was also the primary sponsor of the series during its first two seasons).

After the first season, the shooting location was moved to the more fiscally responsible state of Nevada, which still allowed for grand, lavish landscapes that wowed the early 1960s TV-watchers who had the luxury of colorized viewing.

A year later, NBC moved Bonanza to a much more popular time slot  (replacing The Dinah Shore Chevy Show on Sundays at 9:00 pm). The new time slot saw Bonanza soar in the ratings and eventually reached number one by 1964.

The show held on to the honor of being television’s top-rated regular program until 1967 when it was seriously challenged by the socially provocative and, for its time, controversial variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, on CBS.   But by then, the show was already an established ratings “bonanza” (pardon the pun) and would still have success for several more years…and the rest of the show’s success is history.  It ultimately became one of the top 50 television shows of all time (according to a 2002 “TV Guide” special edition).

Be sure to tune in or set your DVRs to catch the rarely shown, first season episodes in the Bonanza show history – part of this summer’s sizzling ATVN programming lineup.  Bonanza airs every Sunday morning at 9pm.

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on ATVN, check out the weekly listings here.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Astound Broadband or any other agency, organization, employer or company.