Younger Viewers Are Riding With New-Look Westerns

Kelsey Asbille and Kevin Costner in 'Yellowstone'
Kelsey Asbille and Kevin Costner in Paramount Network’s ‘Yellowstone,’ which has sparked new interest in TV Westerns. (Image credit: Emerson Miller/ Paramount Network)

Viewers are saddling up to contemporary Western-themed series and movies as the classic TV genre looks to lasso viewers from a new generation.

Led by record-setting ratings for the November 7 season premiere of Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, cable and streaming services are rustling up shows that showcase the traditions and romance of the old West, often seen through diverse and unique perspectives that have broadened the appeal of the genre for today’s audience. 

“What you have to deal with are new sensibilities with your audience — you can’t do the John Wayne-type westerns of the past,” TV analyst Bill Carroll said. “You can set things in what used to be called the old west but deal with it in a different, contemporary way.”

The genre has ebbed and flowed on the small screen almost from the debut of television into the 1960s, with shows such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger and The Wild Wild West. Over the last 20 years, Western-themed shows like HBO’s Deadwood and Westworld, as well as Longmire on A&E (and Netflix), have found critical and ratings success, but such shows have been few and far between.

‘Yellowstone’ Sparks a Revival

The genre’s recent renaissance can be traced to the ratings success of Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner. The series, about conflicts among Montana cattle ranchers, land developers and residents of tribal lands, drew more than 8 million viewers for its Nov. 7 fourth-season debut and 14.3 million viewers in Nielsen live-plus-3 ratings, making it cable’s most-watched scripted show of the year. Through the first four episodes the series is averaging 10.6 million viewers (on a live-plus-3 basis), up from 6 million viewers for the same period during the show’s  third season, Nielsen said.

Yellowstone has a premium scripted feel with heartland appeal,” ViacomCBS chief programming officer for streaming Tanya Giles said. “You have this universal appeal of a family drama and family conflict mixed with some criminal elements amid beautiful landscapes and an A-list movie actor and a great cast. It’s great to see more people embracing it.” 

Keith Cox, president of scripted content for MTV Entertainment Studios, which produces Yellowstone, said the show — and its Paramount Plus prequel series 1883 (starring Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Sam Elliott) debuting Dec. 19 — showcase a sliver of American culture that has resonated with television audiences for decades. 

Independently-owned network INSP’s mix of classic Westerns and new original series has landed the network in the top 10 most watched cable networks in primetime for the last two months. Originals Wild West Chronicles and competition-based series Ultimate Cowboy Showdown (hosted by Trace Adkins) mesh well with reruns of Gunsmoke and The Big Valley, INSP chief operating officer Dale Ardizzone said. 

“Westerns feature compelling characters and storylines, and they all have themes of right prevailing over wrong,” Ardizzone said. “There are a lot of heroic characters there, and I think we’re going through a time where I think people enjoy that type of character on screen and seeing justice have its day.” 

ViacomCBS’s Giles said the pandemic has helped endear viewers to Western-themed content and stories of pioneers entering unfamiliar territories to face unknown dangers. 

“We spent time at home in the pandemic and looking at things very internally, but like the Western frontier, when we come out it’s like starting a new journey,” Giles said. “I think there’s some appeal to that from an audience perspective.” 

Adding Modern Perspective

A key to the genre’s newfound success, according to Carroll, is in mixing Western themes with unique and diverse perspectives that reflect today’s audience. Netflix’s recent original film The Harder They Fall, about relatively unknown African-American gunslingers from rival 19th-century gangs, generated 1.2 billion minutes of viewing during its debut week from Nov. 1-7, making it the streaming service’s most-watched show over that timespan, according to Nielsen figures.

The film — executive produced by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and starring Idris Elba, Regina King and Jonathan Majors — outperformed among viewers under 34 and Black viewers, Samba TV reported. 

Joe Pickett, a Spectrum Originals series based on C.J. Box’s books about a small-town Wyoming game warden, premiered December 6. And ViacomCBS and Yellow­stone creator Taylor Sheridan have another spinoff in the works. Paramount Plus will stream 6666, centered on the Four Sixes Ranch, a huge ranch owned by a group that includes Sheridan.

Starz is developing for 2022 Billy the Kid, an eight-episode series starring Tom Blyth as the famed outlaw, while AMC Plus last month acquired rights to Western drama series That Dirty Bag, starring Dominic Cooper. 

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.