Just two weeks ago, TV networks’ infatuation with period Westerns seemed to have waned. Of the slew of such projects put in development by the broadcast networks last season, only one, NBC’s The Frontier, had been picked up to pilot, and it didn’t make the cut to series. At the same time, TNT passed on its own period Western pilot, Tin Star. Two weeks later, History’s Hatfields & McCoys burst into the scene, drawing huge crowds. Yes, its viewership skewed older, which is understandable given the historic subject matter, but there were plenty of 18-49-year-olds among the 13-14 million who tuned in for each episode to get the broadcast networks’ attention. And the timing is perfect as pitch season is just around the corner.
NBC may be the first to jump in with the Kerry Ehrin Western originally developed this past season. The network has been the most aggressive among the broadcast networks in the arena, ordering period Western drama pilots for two consecutive years: The Crossing in 2011 and The Frontier this year. The network developed a total of three Western scripts and its executives were happy with all of them, eventually narrowing the field to The Frontier and the Kerry Ehrin project and ultimately going with The Frontier. I hear NBC is now revisiting the Kerry Ehrin drama, produced by Universal TV and Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner’s Hazy Mills. Coincidentally, the project’s producers and NBC brass met on Tuesday morning, when the big ratings for the first night of Hatfields & McCoys came out. Set in the 1880s, the Kerry Ehrin project centers on Jacob Morris, a young, eccentric East Coast doctor of mental disorders who moves to a primitive Western town at the foot of the Colorado Rockies. I hear NBC executives are open to ordering the script to pilot if a name actor and/or director are attached. Other high-profile Westerns that were developed at the broadcast networks last season included The Rifleman reboot at CBS with Laeta Kalogridis, Chris Columbus and Carol Mendelsohn; a Wyatt Earp Western at Fox penned by John Hlavin; and Ron Moore’s Hangtown, set in the early 1900s, and David Zabel’s Gunslinger, both at ABC. With TV business being notoriously reactive, look for some of those to be revisited too and new Western concepts to start coming fast and furious once the floodgates at the broadcast networks open.
The only true Western series on the air right now is AMC’s Hell On Wheels on Sunday. CBS has period drama Vegas coming out in the fall but despite its protagonist, played by Dennis Quaid, being a cowboy-type sheriff, the drama deals with the mob’s 1960s takeover of Las Vegas. Ditto for FX’s Justified, despite the lead’s penchant for wearing cowboy hats. Another highly-rated Western miniseries, AMC’s Broken Trail, didn’t have a major impact on series development. But the success of Hatfields & McCoys comes as the Western genre has already built a strong momentum, making a new period Western series order within the next year a strong possibility.