Law & Order: Will the NBC TV Series Really Break Gunsmoke’s Record?

Law & Order and GunsmokeNBC’s President of Primetime Entertainment, Angela Bromstad, recently vowed to renew Law & Order for another season. This will take the venerable crime drama into its 21st year on the air. She said, “I’m a Law & Order junkie… I wouldn’t want to be responsible for not having Law & Order break the record.”

“The record” she’s talking about is the one set by Gunsmoke. The western ran for 20 seasons on CBS — from September 10, 1955 until March 31, 1975 — and is the longest running drama in US primetime television history.

While it’s true that Law & Order is on track to surpass Gunsmoke’s season total, it’s not exactly an accurate comparison.

During Gunsmoke’s run, between 24 and 39 episodes of the western were produced each season. Law & Order’s seasons have ranged from just 13 to 24 installments each year.

So, at the end of their respective 20th seasons, Law & Order has 445 episodes and Gunsmoke has 635. While both are quite impressive, Gunsmoke has 190 more installments. At the current rate of 13 episodes per season, it will take almost 15 more years for Law & Order to match Gunsmoke’s episode count.

It’s also worth noting that much of the Law & Order cast has changed many times over the past 20 years. Leslie Hendrix (as Medical Examiner Elizabeth Rodgers) and S. Epatha Merkerson (as Lt. Anita Van Buren) joined the cast but most of the main faces have changed numerous times.

Gunsmoke’s cast was essentially the same for its entire run. James Arness portrayed Marshal Matt Dillon and Milburn Stone played “Doc” Adams for 20 years each. Amanda Blake played Miss Kitty for 19 seasons, leaving just before the end.

And, while Law & Order has been a top 10 show for only one season, Gunsmoke was in the top 10 for 13 years.

So, NBC will likely get some nice press for Law & Order’s impressive achievement, it’s worth remembering that it’s just not quite the same as Gunsmoke’s.

What do you think? Which show’s run is more impressive — Gunsmoke or Law & Order? How long do you think Law & Order will last?

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6 Comments · Read them below or add one

  1. says

    During Gunsmoke’s era casts worked extremely hard to make 39 episodes a year.
    I applaud L&O for their longivity, I enjoy the show (not as much as I did a few years ago when Lennie Briscoe was making his wisecracks, but the current detective team is good).
    Gunsmoke lasted because of a stellar cast, great scripts and most of its first ten seasons in the top 5.
    There is really no comparison relating to longivity, Gunsmoke is the winner.

  2. says

    Shows lasted longer years ago because writers didn’t have such a stranglehold on the industry. Even with a new show there may be a few new ones and then repeats right away.
    If writers get paid per episode you would think that they would write more and get more money. So I can only assume that they have contracts that they get paid for working a particular season and they only have to write enough scripts for so many shows.

  3. says

    While I agree that Gunsmoke had more episodes.. it should be noted that TV was different then… shows could last forever because of less choices presented to the public…

    For a show to keep lasting, in this environment where networks expect a show to be a hit within the first 13 episodes (otherwise you are dust).. its an achievement.

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