Dances with cowboys

Networks pony up for Westerns, hoping to lasso key young male viewers

TNT is taking a $100 million gamble that “Into the West,” a 12-hour saga of cowboys and Indians exec-produced by Steven Spielberg, will ride to the rescue of the whole Western genre when it kicks off next month.

Half of the $100 million comes from the production cost, which reps the biggest programming investment in the 17-year history of TNT. The network will spend the remaining $50 million — another record — in marketing and promoting the event, which begins on June 10 with a two-hour premiere.

With “Into the West,” TNT is panning in a stream that could yield either vast riches, or fool’s gold: Pop culture has all but abandoned Westerns in recent years. One reason they’ve fallen on hard times is that they cost so much to produce. (HBO ponies up a staggering $3 million an episode for “Deadwood.”)

Another reason: The indifference of young people, who are so addicted to contempo drama that they regard Western movies and TV shows as hopelessly dated, and of minimal relevance to their lives.

Despite its budget, one exception to this downbeat prognosis is “Deadwood,” which has chalked up a third-season renewal after harvesting praise from critics, gathering 11 Emmy noms for 2004, and walking away with the Golden Globe for actor, to Ian McShane, who co-stars with Timothy Olyphant.

“But ‘Deadwood’ is not your typical Western,” says Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment. “It’s dealing with an outlaw culture. The standard good-buy/bad-guy hallmarks don’t apply, and the show is not into big, open spaces.”

The ratings of “Deadwood” are solid, but only about 25% of its total viewers are adults 18 to 34.

While older adults are doting on “Deadwood,” another recent Western, the six-hour ABC remake of “Little House on the Prairie,” “just didn’t enjoy a big rating success,” says Quinn Taylor, senior VP of movies and miniseries for ABC.

Taylor says it “got the short end of the stick” from ABC’s marketing mavens, who had to focus their attention on more urgent priorities, namely three midseason series: “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Blind Justice” and “Eyes.”

Michael Wright, senior VP of original programming for TNT, acknowledges that “Into the West” is far from a Nielsen slam dunk despite the imprimatur of Spielberg.

“There are so few Western theatrical movies produced these days,” he says, “that younger viewers don’t have the vocabulary” that would steer them in the direction of a limited series like “Into the West.” (Recent theatrical Westerns such as “The Alamo” and Ron Howard’s “Missing” flopped.)

The keys to the success of “Into the West” is reaching the young viewers that Madison Avenue will pay a premium for — and catching the conservative wave riding through the country.

DreamWorks TV, the production company, has stuffed 14 twentysomethings, nine men and five women, into principal roles.

“I think young viewers will be able to identify with these key characters in their 20s trying to survive in the harsh conditions and brutal terrain of the old West,” Wright says.

The cast includes Keri Russell, Tyler Christopher, Rachael Leigh Cook, Matthew Settle and Jessica Capshaw. Justin Falvey, co-president of DreamWorks TV with Daryl Frank, says he and Frank were hyperconscious about “not turning this project into a history lesson that preaches to the audience.”

But Shari Anne Brill, VP and director of programming for the media buyer Carat USA, points to what she calls the “West Side Story” element in which the Settle character, a white frontiersman, marries a Lakota Indian woman. David Rosemont, the producer of “Into the West,” and William Mastrosimone, who wrote the overall story, have made sure that the Native American point of view gets a full hearing.

“Into the West” is a multi-generational family saga covering the years 1825 to 1890, and Kevin Sandler, professor of media industries at the U. of Arizona, says that politics has, at least in part, dictated its timing.

Citing “the growing conservatism of the country and the FCC’s indecency concerns,” Sandler says programs like “Into the West” and “Little House” (but not “Deadwood”) “deal with traditional notions of family and religion, and America’s manifest destiny.”

Joe Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School of the U. of Pennsylvania, says “Into the West” provides “a creative landscape to work out various social issues.”

That strategy may appeal to the conservatives now in charge of the White House and Congress. But TNT and DreamWorks are praying to the Indian spirits that it doesn’t turn off the 18- to 34-year-olds.