Westerns had their heyday on TV more than four decades ago. In 1959, 31 Westerns were airing in primetime, according to Gary Browning, library supervisor for the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles. By 1965, the number had dwindled to seven.
When Gunsmoke, the granddaddy of the genre, left the air after 20 seasons in 1975, it was the last Western on network TV, according to Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh's latest The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.
Today, Western-themed programming remains in short supply on television.
Still, fans of Westerns are tuning in when they can find them — sometimes in record-breaking numbers. A few cable channels have staked out strong identities based on their Western programming, giving new meaning to the term "branded" that was once affixed to the NBC series starring Chuck Connors.
More Western fare looms on the near horizon, with uber
producer Steven Spielberg and buzz-magnet Home Box Office venturing into the space. Spielberg is doing a 12-hour series, Into the West,
for Turner Network Television that will air next year, while HBO bows its new series Deadwood
Those projects nearly guarantee new ground will be broken with this form.
Even The History Channel has a Western series — a nonfiction show called Wild West Tech
— set to premiere in March.
Over the years, cable has enjoyed a string of successes with the Western genre. The premiere of TNT's Crossfire Trail
starring Tom Selleck in 2001 remains the highest-rated and most-watched movie — original or theatrical — in basic-cable history. TNT's Monte Walsh, another Selleck oater that premiered a year ago, remains the most watched Friday program in basic cable history.
TNT isn't the only cable network that's scored with the genre.
Starz Westerns Channel is now Starz Encore's most popular themed channel.
And since Hallmark Channel first introduced its "Rough 'N Ready" Saturday, a block of classic Westerns, ratings from 6 p.m. to midnight that day have jumped 80%.
USA Network's failed experiment last year with the series Peacemakers,
an investigation show set in a Western milieu, apparently hasn't scared TNT and HBO away from the genre.
had solid ratings, its audience skewed too old for USA, and it was cancelled.
could be the most ground-breaking scripted Western to hit the small screen since Gunsmoke,
which was considered innovative in its time.
The site of one the richest gold strikes in U.S. history, Deadwood, S.D., was an illegal and lawless settlement carved from the Black Hills and ripped from the Sioux, who had been deeded the land for "as long as the rivers shall run."
The series begins in 1876 just two weeks after Custer's last stand and mixes fictional and real-life characters.
The old days were hardly idyllic. A cyanide cloud blanketed the town 24 hours a day, opium-addled women bought for pennies were held in slave-like conditions, and 10% of the population was murdered each year.
According to David Milch, Deadwood's
creator, executive producer and head writer, some described the town back then as "a version of hell." Milch's credits include NYPD Blue
and Hill Street Blues,
so he's already been a groundbreaker in a different genre, cop shows.
Western scripted-series have sputtered in the past few years, HBO officials acknowledge.
"ABC had Then Came Jones, Fox had Firefly, and USA had Peacemakers," said Miranda Heller, HBO's vice president of original programming. "These were new attempts."
The problem in her view comes down to the inherent limitations placed on ad-supported networks and cable. "They are taking an old genre and dealing with the same old constraints," Heller said. "So you get something that feels tired. It feels like you've seen it before. Peacemakers
was a well-made show but they were unable to break any new ground with it. It doesn't matter how good Tom Berenger's performance is. People are looking for something fresh, particularly after all these years of Westerns."
The entertainment industry is already atwitter about revisionist Deadwood,
and the envelopes it will push.
"I've heard the profanity is unbelievable!" said one top cable executive, echoing a common industry and press sentiment.
Calamity Jane's language is so salty by today's standards she'd probably be diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome.
HBO isn't expecting fans of traditional Westerns to cotton to this exercise in verisimilitude, which Milch dismisses as "one of any number of conventions — no better than fantasy …. or romance."
HBO acknowledges that its revisionist approach, in terms of the vocabulary used in Deadwood,
is a gamble.
"The riskiest thing about this show is the language," admitted Heller. "But only in the sense that the audience for the traditional Western will not have much truck with that kind of language."
Heller said HBO wasn't actively seeking to do a Western, "but it's a genre that interested all of us. It's an enduring genre and it felt timely to us."
She recalled that when Milch pitched HBO chairman Chris Albrecht a series about ancient Rome, "Chris said, 'We already have a series about ancient Rome [called Rome, a co-production with the BBC slated for 2005]. How about a Western?' "
Westerns are largely unexplored territory for premium services. "There are certain genres that we look at and we think, how can we make this ours, how can we make this an HBO show," Heller said. "The [private-investigator] genre and the Western are traditional genres of television but not of pay cable. How do you take those genres and turn them into something that hasn't been done before? That's what excites us."
shares common ground with other HBO series, Oz
and The Sopranos —
in particular. Audiences won't find easy answers, and the nature of the setting guarantees that some favorite characters will meet a violent end.
"As these characters move forward," Heller said, "what's so fascinating, like The Sopranos, is that people who are seemingly 'good' or 'bad' turn out to be all things ... what you're really looking at is what it is to be human ... there is no black and white in this show."
Fundamental to the concept, Milch has said, is how people comport themselves "in the absence of any governing principle."
Adds Heller, "David's starting place was the truth, which made this an interesting project for him initially."
Milch conducted his research, in part, at the Library of Congress.
Heller hinted at the show's trajectory: "Within a short period of time, and within the span of the first season, law comes to Deadwood. So what the viewers will get to see is: who will be creating and upholding the law? It's a deep exploration of how we as human beings create and connect society around us."
Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Olyphant) is a real character who did, in fact, eventually serve as Deadwood's first marshal.
Like HBO's K Street, sifting fact from fiction in the show will probably become a new Internet sport.
TNT has a tradition with Westerns that lead up to its venture with Spielberg. The network is widely identified with the muscular Western telepic, the "colorful, broad landscape" says Michael Wright, TNT's senior vice president of movies and mini-series, "that speaks to that idealized notion of what it is to be American. It's about the wide-open range, the ability to make something of yourself based entirely on your character and grit. Our Westerns speak to that spirit."
TNT introduced its first Western original, Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid
(starring Val Kilmer), in 1989.
Since then, TNT has produced and aired 26 original Westerns, including the record-setting Crossfire Trail.
TNT's approach to the genre has been tried and true. The films are usually based on previously published books or stories, including works by Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour and Elmore Leonard.
Then, TNT selects respected filmmakers like Emmy-winning David Rosemont (Door to Door) to bring the productions to fruition.
"If you're a connoisseur of the Western, TNT has been very skilled at attracting those people who know how to make that film correctly," Wright said.
TNT is embarking on another Selleck oater and on what Wright confirms is the most ambitious project by far ever undertaken by the channel: Into the West,
a 12-hour original series in partnership with executive producer Spielberg and DreamWorks Television.
The goal, Wright said, is "to tell the comprehensive and definitive story of America's expansion."
The epic will explore the dramatic developments of the era through the distinct viewpoints of two families — one Native American and one American.
The series is slated for launch in the summer of next year, and Wright says the project is on track to begin filming this summer.
"We've formed an unbelievable team, and Steven's participation and personal enthusiasm for the project is inspiring," Wright said.
"When we first started talking about the subject matter, it was interesting how many of us responded on personal and passionate levels to the story. A handful of people are deeply committed. There are lots of Saturdays in the office, and stories and ideas bouncing back and forth on weekends."
Emmy-nominated William Mastrosimone (The Burning Season) is penning the series.
TNT would only disclose production costs will be "high."
Wright believes the production will reward TNT's loyal audience with yet another robust Western but will also "reach out to a new audience to show them something they haven't seen before."
Clearly, the intent is to net even more of the younger demos.
"The storytelling style and the nature of the story is surprising youthful," Wright said. "Most of the characters are in their 20s, and their dreams reflect the needs and dreams of today's 20-something."
Westerns also appeal to Americans today on another level, according to Wright. "This is a time in our country when we seem to be re-examining our national identity. As Americans, we're always trying to figure out who we are
and the Western speaks to that like no other genre."
The challenge when working with such a venerable form, Wright said, "is to keep it fresh and resonant. We have arguably the best cinema storyteller of our generation shaping the project.
"We feel we can take this genre, with which the channel has succeeded so well, to a whole new level. "
Since its inception in 1994, Starz Encore's Westerns Channel, the only network devoted exclusively to Westerns, has become a cult favorite of the genre's enthusiasts.
"We're a presence in people's homes," Jeff Hildebrandt, Westerns' senior producer, said. "I hear constantly around the country, 'We get up in the morning, and turn on the Westerns Channel and it stays on all day.' "
Starz Encore officials are pleased with audience support Westerns has received.
"Westerns Channel viewers are our most loyal, most vocal, most knowledgeable. They're the ones we get the most letters from, the most requests from," according to Jonathan Shair, vice president of scheduling and planning Starz Encore Group. "Westerns has become our most popular themed channel."
In Shair's opinion, audience appetite for the material is healthy and growing although the audience remains underserved.
"Count the number of music channels, the channels specific to women, to kids and teens, and news," Shair said. "In all the genres, there are multiple channels. With Westerns there's only one. It's interesting that we're the only game in town."
Starz on Trail
Westerns Channel is as much about cinema as it is about audience identification with the Western lifestyle. The channel produces original "On The Trail" segments that profile all manner of Western-themed subjects, from movie stars to music festivals, museums, and filmfests.
When "On The Trail" featured the (relatively) undiscovered National Cowboy Symposium held yearly in Lubbock, Texas — a music and cowboy poetry festival that hosts one of the largest chuck wagon cook-offs in the country — Westerns Channel viewers "from across the country swamped the festival," according to Hildebrandt.
Along with the expected staples, like Hopalong Cassidy flicks and Roy Rogers marathons, Westerns also promotes alternative voices.
Last August, the network presented "Images of Indians: How Hollywood Stereotyped the Native Americans," a collection of 25 films spanning the last century. It paired the block with an original documentary of the same name that matched film clips with provocative critiques by Native American actor and activist Russell Means and director Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals).
"When we screened 'Images of Indians' at the Starz Denver International Film Festival [in October 2003], we had a tremendous turnout," said Brock DeShane, Westerns' senior program scheduler, who co-wrote and associate produced the series. "It was fascinating to see the cross-demos — older classic Westerns fans, younger Native Americans, families with their children."
Slated for this summer is another original documentary, this time focused on cult filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, director of The Wild Bunch
and other Westerns. Christopher Black, senior manager of original productions for Starz Encore, called Peckinpah's career "ripe for reappraisal. Many immediately recall his notoriety for on screen violence but much less known is what a dynamic and truly talented filmmaker he really was."
In partnership with Gene Autry Entertainment, Westerns Channel financed the restoration of 89 of the "Singing Cowboy's" feature films and all 91 episodes of the Gene Autry Show
TV series. Airings of the newly restored works are scheduled on an ongoing basis.
"We have a whole array of programming for a complex audience," DeShane said. "There are younger filmmakers with unique voices contributing to the genre — Chris Eyre and Robert Rodriguez [Desperado], for example."
The channel airs ongoing cult/pulp Western packages. "We look at it as an ever-evolving, ever vibrant genre," said DeShane, who believes Westerns endure precisely because the genre, like jazz and baseball, is a purely American invention and as such, says much about the national character.
"For better and worse, it's our national mythology. Westerns reflect our highest ideals but they also reveal our deepest prejudices … Like our nation, the Western genre is dynamic and problematic and that's why they continue to fascinate."
HISTORY BUSTS MYTHS
The History Channel is also venturing into Western-genre turf with its new series Wild West Tech,
which examines the tools and tricks used by bad-boy cowboys, cheatin' gamblers, gunslingers, and outlaws. Keith Carradine, who also plays Wild Bill Hickok in HBO's Deadwood, hosts.
Like the revisionist Deadwood, Wild West Tech
will probably alter notions about the old West.
"Part of what The History Channel can do is find new things," said Charlie Maday, senior vice president of programming. "Some of these new things don't conform to popular conceptions. A lot of what we know about the West was manufactured at the turn of the century by Western writers and by people who wanted to sell dime store novels and the Wild West Show."
Maday was hesitant to greenlight the project after some Western-themed programming was poorly received back in the mid-1990's. "But we noticed recently some of the shows we aired on Western subjects had done quite well. Interest in Westerns has come back.
"We also have a big emphasis here at The History Channel on the history of technology. Our audience loves Modern Marvels. It's the old-fashioned television trick of combining genres."
Wild West Tech has an updated look. Information is packaged with snappy graphics, plenty of action sequences using dramatic reenactments, and Carradine's tongue-in-cheek delivery.
The jazzy presentation sits comfortably atop the science, although this production proved to be unusually research intensive, even for The History Channel. "No one wrote the book on the technology of the West," West Tech executive producer Dolores Gavin said.
Producers sourced primary documentation by combing through Library of Congress archives and obscure periodicals and newspapers from across the country.
"What's interesting about this series is this mix of technology and storytelling," Gavin said. "Everyday on Main Street in the Wild West you have good versus evil, the human experience.
"Western stories aren't exhausted. It's just a matter of due diligence."
Classic Westerns — like Bonanza, The Virginian
have helped Hallmark Channel slice through the 200-channel/Internet/video-game jungle and are a factor in the network's overall ratings upswing.
Viewers have stampeded to Hallmark's "Rough 'N Ready" Saturdays, when Westerns air from noon into late-night.
Since the block's July 2002 debut through this January, ratings from noon to 6 p.m. have jumped 83% on Saturday.
During that same time span, Hallmark's ratings on Saturdays from 6 p.m. to midnight soared 80%.
Saturday now is the channel's highest-rated day, and on-air promotions are fueling growth by luring viewers to the network's other programming.
Dave Kenin, Hallmark's executive vice president of programming, believes viewers are on the prowl for alternatives.
"Usually in these sagas, the right and wrong, the moral clarity of the issues being dealt with, was very different than what we see in a CSI
or a Law & Order,"
Kenin said. "In those shows, the moral clarity often disappears. All the gray scale is on display. In [classic Westerns], it's usually a fairly simple exposition of a plot in which is there is good and bad, and the choices are moral choices."
Hallmark Nets Women
That's especially appealing to women, according to Kenin. "They want to see a world in which there's a moral geography. Even if all the characters are men — as a number of Westerns were in those days — there's a sense of family, of relationship, something you can hang your hat on beyond the clarity of the moral message."
Women are watching in unusually large numbers. Among adults 25 to 54, women comprised 47% of the block's watchers during the fourth quarter.
Moral clarity aside, there's plenty for the pop-culture enthusiast or the mahjong playing/bridge clubbing/martini drinking genXers — who are currently moving through a retro craze on their way to middle age — to enjoy on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Robert Altman directed episodes of Bonanza, and film buffs will pick up on his stylistic touches, from whiskey dripping from a bible to character viewpoints shot from tilted angles.
episodes were directed by its creator, Peckinpah. A parade of soon-to-be-famous actors like Gena Rowlands and Robert Redford show up in these productions.
Kenin plans to commission one or two original Western movies per year going forward, one of which is likely to air this summer.
Hallmark is considering spinning off one of those — or one of its original mystery movies — into a series.
"Westerns have an enduring appeal," Kenin said. "This is not a recent thing. I believe that appeal will continue. I don't see it as a fad, I don't see at it short-term thing ... We recognized something that was there, an underserved audience, and we went after it."