Westerns Ride Back on TV

July 20, 2007–Western may be all but extinct in Hollywood's feature cinema, but on TV, the genre is still riding high in the saddle. By beating out their 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.

Last year, TNT's “Into the West” received 16 nomination, though it won only two awards.

The track record of the old genre–oaters as it used to be called is a reflection of the older age of the TV Academy membership. But “Trail” exec producer Stanley Brooks thinks it's simply a reflection of the genre's timeless appeal.

Most Iconic American Genre

“The Western is still the most 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 favoring Westerns is proof again that “everything is cyclical,” said “Bury My Heart” exec producer Dick Wolf. “Are there now going to be a cycle 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.”

Undertold Story

HBO's prexy Colin Callender offers 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. “There's an 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.”

Revisiting History

Callender pointed to some of the biggest longforms in TV history, including “Eleanor and Franklin,” in 1977, which “Bury My Heart” now ties as the TV movie with the most nominations. 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. “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 always lands many Emmy nominations, the success of “Broken Trail” had a major impact on AMC. Inspired by the miniseries's ratings– the most-watched scripted project on basic cable last year–AMC is moving forward into the world of original-series programming. On Thurs night, July 20, it launched “Mad Men,” the period drama that marks the net's first original production in two decades, since “Remember WENN” to be exact.

Later this summer, AMC begins production on “Breaking Bad,” and another miniseries 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 v.p. 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 promotional 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 TV,” he said.

As for “Bury My Heart,” the Western project represented Wolf's first experience with HBO. As producer, he was impressed 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.”

Acclaim for “Bury My Heart” opens up yet another new career path for Wolf. He is now eager to work again with HBO, while Callender confirmed that the cabler is in talks with him about new projects.

HBO's Deadwood as Exception

While Western-themed longform does well with audiences, 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 show's third season.