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Cowboy Comeback

Head ’em up and move ’em out!

A staple of broadcast television some 50 years ago, the
Western genre eventually went the way of the buggy whip
— fading from television lineups by the mid 1970s and considered
ancient history by today’s television viewers.

Until now. A Western renaissance of sorts, led primarily
by the big-screen success of the 2010 Academy Award nominated film True
and this summer’s $96 million box-office hit Cowboys and Aliens, has
helped lead several cable networks to saddle up to the Western genre with
new series and shows.


AMC this fall will debut the original series Hell on Wheels, about a Confederate
soldier in the post-Civil War U.S. who travels by train to get revenge on
the Union soldiers who killed his wife. A&E Network recently said it greenlighted
Longmire, a Western-themed crime thriller set in Montana’s “Big
Sky” country, while TNT recently said it will mine the genre with the pilot
Gateway, which follows the story of brothers who look to keep their 1880s
Colorado town together after the death of their father, the sheriff .

On the movie side, Hallmark Movie Channel will devote at least a quarter
of its 2012 original schedule to Westerns with two sequels from its most
watched movie ever, Goodnight For Justice, said network officials.

Starz Entertainment is also looking at Western-themed original projects
to compliment its popular Encore Westerns multiplex channel.

Cable programmers say younger and older viewers are embracing Westernthemed
programming for its nostalgic nature, as well as its often simplistic
but universal message of good versus evil, which resonates with viewers
living in today’s troubled and complicated world.

“There’s still a nostalgic element [with Western programming] that resonates
with viewers even if it wasn’t targeted to them specifically,” Starz Entertainment
executive vice president of programming Stephan Shelanski said.

Hallmark Channels CEO Bill Abbott added: “I think Westerns have
always offered good storytelling, and, at the end of the day, there’s still
something very much appealing about good versus bad.”

Cable is no stranger to the old West — a number of genre-based projects
struck ratings gold for cable networks in the early 2000s. Original movies
like TNT’s Crossfire Trail (2001) and AMC’s Broken Trail (2006) both remain
among the most-watched cable films of all time, according to Nielsen.

Series like HBO’s 2004 drama Deadwood and TNT’s Steven Spielbergproduced
2005 miniseries Into the West also found loyal viewers despite
heavy competition from more prolific TV genres, such as police procedurals,
dramas and comedies.

Still, few Westerns have been produced for cable in recent years. Hallmark’s
Abbott says much of that is due to the perception that the genre’s shows tend to
draw audiences older than the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic.


Indeed, it’s common for Starz’s Encore Western channel to draw an audience
with an average age of 50 or older, according to Shelanski. But the network’s
audience is also multi-generational, he added — grandmothers often
watch with their kids and
grandkids, so younger viewers
get exposed to the genre.

On a 24-hour basis, according
to Starz, the Western
channel has an audience
that’s on par with HBO and
surpasses all other pay channels.
The heaviest viewing
occurs in the afternoon, according
to the programmer.

“Initially, we were concerned
about the [Western
genre’s] older demographic
and were afraid that over
time the audience would diminish,
but it’s actually gotten
stronger over time,”
Shelanski said. “It is older,
but it’s not just a 50-plus audience,
but rather a multigenerational
one, because
the grandparents are watching
the channel with their
children and grandchildren.”

Hallmark Movie Channel’s
Goodnight for Justice — starring
Luke Perry and directed
by his former Beverly Hills
90210 castmate Jason Priestley — drew a network record 1.5 million viewers for its Jan.
29 premiere. More importantly for the network, the movie
— about a Western Territories judge
seeking to protect the innocent but
longing to avenge the death of his
family — drew more upscale and
younger viewers than the typical
Hallmark Movie Channel film, according
to Abbott.

“The perception is that Westerns
maybe more downscale or
skew older, but the reality is quite
different,” Abbott said. “There’s a
big section of the country between
New York and Los Angeles, and it’s
not just land — there’s still a big
part of the country out there that’s
interested in horses and cattle and what you would typically
think of as Western fare.”

The network has already green-lighted a second and third
installment of Goodnight for Justice to air in 2012. It’s looking
at other Western-themed scripts to potentially fill out
next year’s schedule of 12 original telefilms.

“Our network is still emerging, so to be able to deliver that
critical mass with limited marketing and limited amount
of promotion was really a tribute to not only Jason Priestley
and Luke Perry, but also to the genre itself — it’s really a destination
for viewers in many ways,” Abbott said.

Both AMC and TNT will go west again with new series projects.
AMC’s Hell on Wheels, which stars Anson Mount (Crossroads)
as a Confederate solider whose quest for vengeance
for the death of his wife leads him to the construction of the
first transcontinental railroad, brings a contemporary drama
feel to the Western experience, which has made the genre increasingly
more appealing to younger
viewers, according to Joel Stillerman,
AMC’s senior vice president of original
programming, production and
digital content.

“I think the Western genre gets reinvented
every few years whether it’s
Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven or
True Grit,” he said. “For people who
love the genre, it never really goes
away, and there always seem to be
some good Westerns in the pipeline
somewhere, even if it’s a big popcorn
take like Cowboys and Aliens.”

He added that the Western genre is
still an important part of the network’s programming strategy
— AMC airs such films as Seraphim Falls, Lonesome Dove and
Jeremiah Johnson throughout the year. The network’s first original
project, the 2006 two-part movie Broken Trail, remains
its most-watched original program ever, averaging nearly
10 million viewers for each installment.

TNT, which drew more than 12 million viewers a decade
ago with the Tom Selleck-starrer Crossfire Trail, will
also look to build on its Westerns pedigree with the pilot
development of Gateway.

“It’s a classic good-guys-and-bad-guys Western that respects
the tradition of the genre while also adding a few
twists of its own,” Michael Wright, executive vice president
and head of programming for TNT, TBS and TCM. “While
we love our procedural dramas, we’re also enthused about
adding a few more smart, escapist genre shows to the mix
— and Gateway has the potential to do that.”

While it’s unclear if more networks will hitch their programming
wagons to the Western genre, Starz’s Shelanski
said the current run of genre-specific projects is more trend
than an isolated shot in the programming dark.

“I don’t know if it’s truly a full renaissance, but there’s definitely
an appetite in the marketplace for some new, original
Western series,” he said. “Having a few Western series out there
that are done well will give the genre a very good chance of
long-term success.”