As the patriarch of the Cartwright family in “Bonanza,” Lorne Greene’s Ben Cartwright had a lot of weight on his shoulders. From 1959-1973, his character was responsible for the Ponderosa Ranch and had plenty to worry about.
One thing that didn’t bother him in the least, however, was how well other TV shows were performing.
“Bonanza” held the top spot in TV ratings during the mid-1960s, and it is one of the most successful television shows of all time. In hindsight, it’s comical to think that a variety show like “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS could even come close to making Lorne Greene worry about “Bonanza” viewership.
For a brief period in the 1960s, CBS tried its best to dethrone competing network NBC’s “Bonanza.” In a 1967 interview, Lorne Greene was asked how he felt about “The Smothers Brothers” taking over the ratings for a few weeks. He wasn’t bothered whatsoever.
“A new show comes on the air, people know that we’re going to be there the following week. They don’t know if they’re going to be there the following week. So they tune in to see and they tune in for 3 and 4 and 5 weeks. Then after that, if they like that show, they’ll stay to that show. We do shows that are good enough, they’ll come back to be with the Cartwrights,” Greene told Bobbie Wygant in 1967.
So Why Wasn’t the ‘Bonanza’ Star Worried?
The strategy CBS employed by airing shows like “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was finding a different audience. The network realized that the people watching “Bonanza” were mostly over 40 years old. So they decided to field a show that would appeal to a younger crowd.
“We’ve had a lot of mail from people. Because when you’re number one for five years, nobody writes about it, you know,” Greene continued in the 1967 interview. “The moment you’re out of number one, everybody says ‘Bonanza’s hit the skids,’ you know. Some great big headlines have been in a number of papers across the country. We get mail from people saying ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be with you, we wanted to see what the Smothers Brothers were like. We’ll be back, don’t worry.'”
So Lorne Greene took comfort in the quality of his work. He trusted that his audience would appreciate it. And appreciate it they did. The fact that we’re writing about it over 50 years later is pretty good evidence of that.