A gritty Western miniseries just delivered blockbuster ratings, triggering speculation about a resurgence of a near-dormant genre that dominated TV’s infancy.
Last week’s History presentation “Hatfields & McCoys?” Well, yes, but also try AMC’s “Broken Trail” in 2006, or even CBS’ “Lonesome Dove” in 1989.
Every few years it seems the oater rears its dusty head, causing people to wonder whether it’s time for a comeback. Yet while the media landscape keeps shifting, these anticipated flights haven’t gotten airborne — certainly not in the way one might expect given how when something works spectacularly well in the entertainment industry, there’s usually a half-dozen knockoffs in development by the following Tuesday.
Indeed, back when “Lonesome Dove” became an instant sensation, then-CBS Entertainment Prexy Kim LeMasters joked about cloning the concept in every way imaginable, including a Saturday-morning kids show titled “Lonesome Dove Babies.”
But it didn’t happen then, any more than five years ago, even after a pair of oaters — “Broken Trail” and the HBO movie “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” — lassoed the top longform Emmys, yielding headlines (including one in Variety) about a “Western revival.”
Alas, the reasons the Western hasn’t ridden again or raised a posse are nearly as ingrained in TV’s business dynamics as those undermining the clout of older demographics, and the two are partly related.
It was back in 1970, famously, when CBS jettisoned several still relatively popular series — shows including “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” — in order to more aggressively court younger and urban viewers. (“All in the Family,” a true game- and profile-changer, followed.)
“The sales department was yelling and screaming, saying they couldn’t sell them,” recalled Fred Silverman, who headed the network’s entertainment division at the time. “They were dying in the company-owned markets” where CBS had stations, particularly in larger cities.
Silverman referred to the rural skew of certain shows as “?’Hee Haw’ syndrome,” referencing the Southern-fried variety hour that yielded bumper-crop ratings in farm country but registered barely a blip in heavily populated urban centers.
Sure enough, “Hatfields” — drilling deeper into the numbers — reflects that persistent split, as well as the U.S.’ red-state/blue-state divide.
Based on Nielsen data for 56 metered markets, the miniseries posted its highest ratings in Southern bastions Knoxville (15.9), Louisville (15.4) and Birmingham (14.8), and fared worst in L.A. (2.6) and San Francisco (1.8).
Granted, as national entities cable networks needn’t worry quite as heavily about affiliates or individual cities. Even so, there’s still a bias favoring large markets and young viewers, and Westerns have a nagging reputation of doing disproportionately well with those weaned on John Wayne movies.
That’s hardly a powerful incentive — even in a fragmented market — to gamble on what are usually pretty expensive shows.
While there’s nothing overtly political about these Hollywood priorities, the net effect feeds the perception that coastal elites are hostile toward heartland values — exacting liberal revenge against Tea Party types.
The Western profile could also be seen in the mid-1990s, when CBS cobbled together a regular night with tremendous hinterland appeal, consisting of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” “Touched by an Angel” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
Not only did those shows dominate Saturday — where networks have thrown in the towel, airing nothing but sports and reruns — but CBS’ rating invariably surged nationally compared to its metered-market average, predicated on big cities accounting for over half the country.
In short, Westerns have never stopped working. They just have a bad habit of working best among the wrong people from a TV-sales perspective.
On a separate front, Silverman thinks the “Hatfields'” firepower could reveal an unfulfilled hunger for miniseries — witness “Downton Abbey’s” surprising strength on PBS — more than a particular fondness for oaters. By abandoning the form, the major networks created a vacuum in what once represented the best, most-watched programs TV had to offer.
As a consequence, any legacy from “Hatfields & McCoys” probably won’t manifest itself in a Western renaissance. Instead, Southerners will have to resign their TV victories to the period every spring when the region helps a native son or daughter win “American Idol.”
To borrow another Variety headline, even after this latest triumph, don’t be surprised if TV programmers nix hick picks.