''Gunsmoke'''s successful run -- A tribute to the longest-running network episodic series

Sure, Meet The Press has been on for 50 years. And The Ed Sullivan Show kept kicking for 23 seasons. But if you throw out news and variety programs and stick to prime-time shows with recurring characters, nothing was more durable than the adventures of Marshal Matt Dillon and his posse. From 1955 to 1975 (one fifth of a century!) James Arness and Co. got America into Dodge. ”We interacted like a real family,” says the semi-retired Arness, 74. ”And it made the viewers feel like they were with old friends.”

Will another show ever have Gunsmoke‘s staying power? ”Yeah, right,” says Marjorie Weitzman, executive producer of the new sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. ”Besides the sheer burnout factor, characters age. I don’t think anyone wants to see Monica from Friends go through menopause.” And even if your characters can’t age, industry-wide economic pressures these days make such long-term commitments prohibitively expensive. Take the 8-year-old The Simpsons, which next season, will become prime time’s longest-running episodic program. ”Our cast hasn’t changed much since the first season. We had everything we wanted…until now,” says creator Matt Groening, referring to the well-publicized salary negotiations involving the show’s voice actors. It doesn’t bode well for a new record when even cartoon characters are holding out for more cash.

Maybe Bart and Co. would be happier in cowboy hats?