‘Dallas’: J.R. Ewing Was Shot on This Day in 1980, Leading to the ‘Who Shot J.R.’ Campaign

by Clayton Edwards
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Forty-one years ago today CBS aired the season three finale of Dallas. At the end of that episode, J.R. Ewing heard a noise outside his window. When he went to check, an unseen assailant shot him twice. Then, viewers had to wait until the next season, over eight months later, to find out who did the deed. This spawned the popular marketing campaign, “Who Shot J.R.?”

Dallas fans had no idea who shot J.R. This is mostly because the list of people who would want to shoot the villainous character was pretty long. In fact, few people didn’t have a reason to plug him. However, the cast of the hit show was sworn to secrecy. They wouldn’t tell who did it, no matter who asked. For eight months, it was the topic of discussion. Oddsmakers were even getting some action on the big reveal. In short, it was a huge moment for television fans.

The Impact of the Dallas “Who Shot J.R.” Campaign

Even in a world without the internet, eight months is a long time to keep an audience captivated. However, the folks behind Dallas had a great plan. They started a fire with the iconic advertising campaign and the media and fans of the show kept the flames burning.

News outlets talked about the Dallas mystery. At the same time, novelty shirts with “Who shot J.R.” or “I shot J.R.” printed on them flooded the market. Also, it was the year of a presidential election. Some Republicans even printed campaign buttons with “A Democrat Shot J.R.” on them. In short, it was a cultural phenomenon.

The Dallas episode had a much deeper cultural impact than just funny shirts and news segments, though. It helped to popularize the cliffhanger ending for season finales. So, if you have ever been outraged by a cliffhanger ending, you know who to blame. Blame J.R. Ewing.

It wasn’t just all the talk about the incident that made cliffhanger endings popular. It was what happened when the reveal came. When the shooter was revealed in the fourth episode of the fourth season of Dallas the ratings were through the roof. When the episode aired it had a 53.3 Nielsen rating and controlled three-quarters of the television market. That represented an estimated 83 million people tuning in to find out who shot J.R.

At the time, it was the highest-rated TV episode in history. It was knocked out of that spot three years later by the series finale of M*A*S*H.

If you’re still wondering who shot J.R., it was Kristin, his sister-in-law and mistress. He definitely had it coming.

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