Oaters still blazing new TV trails

Oaters may be largely extinct in the feature world — but on TV, the genre is still riding high in the saddle.

By blowing away their respective movie and miniseries competition, HBO’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and AMC’s “Broken Trail” continued to demonstrate the TV Academy’s fondness for the Western. Just last year, TNT’s “Into the West” corralled 16 noms (though it won only two awards).

Some would argue that the genre’s above-average track record is a reflection of the older skew of the TV Academy. But “Trail” exec producer Stanley Brooks thinks it’s simply a reflection of the genre’s timelessness.

“The Western is still the iconic American genre. It’s that Joseph Campbell myth,” he said. “Audiences like visiting a time when the good guys were good, the bad guys were bad, and everyone understood the rules. And while the viewing audience has become fractured, this is still family viewing.”

Emmy’s Western fetish is proof again that “everything is cyclical,” said “Bury My Heart” exec producer Dick Wolf.

“Are there now going to be a wave of Westerns? I doubt it,” he said. “But I grew up on them, and I love them. They were once one of the three staples on TV. That appetite hasn’t completely been extinguished. People will go to a Western if it’s the right Western. The good ones command big audiences.”

But HBO Films prexy Colin Callender has a different theory: It’s not so much the Western genre but the fact that “Bury My Heart” dramatizes an undertold story in American history.

“I don’t think it’s about the West,” he said. “I think there is an abiding interest among the audience in looking back at our history and exploring it with an honesty and reality that helps us understand the world we live in today.”

Callender pointed to some of the biggest longforms in TV history, including 1977’s “Eleanor and Franklin,” which “Bury My Heart” now ties as the TV movie with the most noms. Miniseries that were major successes included everything from “Winds of War” to “Roots.”

“There’s an interest in the history of this country,” he said. “There’s even a whole basic cable channel dedicated to history. We’re in the middle of ‘John Adams’ for next year.”

What made “Bury My Heart” particularly unique is its focus on Native American history, a topic not usually addressed in TV longforms.

“The feedback we’ve had both from the Native American community and the extended community said this was a great tool to talk about this part of our history in a way that will enlighten,” Callender said. “We at HBO try to look at stories that haven’t been told before.”

While HBO is an old pro at landing Emmy noms — and Wolf doesn’t need any help with his career — the success of “Broken Trail” promises to have a major impact on AMC.

Inspired by the mini’s huge ratings — it was the most-watched scripted project on basic cable last year — AMC is pushing forward into the world of original-series programming. Thursday night, it launched “Mad Men,” the well-reviewed period drama that marks the net’s first original production in nearly two decades (since “Remember WENN”).

Later this summer, it begins production on the edgy hour “Breaking Bad.” And another mini (most likely war-themed) is likely by the end of next year.

“We were already on a series track, but ‘Broken Trail’ was like a rocket launch for us,” said AMC exec veep of programming and production Rob Sorcher. “It showed the power of our platform, which has 93 million (potential) viewers.”

Sorcher said AMC picked a Western for its first mini because it knew that genre played well with its core audience, and because it had a library of film titles that could serve as solid promo bases for the new production.

AMC’s series are going in “a different direction” creatively, he said, but will maintain the film-like quality that marked “Broken Trail.”

“We want to do things that don’t look like television,” he said.

As for “Bury My Heart,” project repped Wolf’s first experience with the HBO machine. The producer said he was blown away by the difference between broadcast and pay cable.

“The marketing is beyond a mere producer’s comprehension, based upon my previous experience,” he said. “HBO has a different mandate. You can’t expect a broadcast network to do something like this.”

Acclaim surrounding “Bury My Heart” opens up yet another new career path for Wolf — longform producer. Wolf said he’s eager to work again with HBO, while Callender confirmed that the pay cabler is in talks with the “Law & Order” maven about new projects.

While Western-themed longform does well with auds, David Milch’s unconventional take on the oater genre, HBO’s “Deadwood,” was never a major ratings hit. Emmy initially seemed enamored of the show but this year virtually ignored the skein’s third season.

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