TNT and the Production of Western Films

Turner Broadcasting System introduced the TNT cable network in 1988 after achieving profitability with superstation WTBS and CNN (Cable News Network). Created as a venue for Turner's vast library of films, TNT consisted almost exclusively of theatrical and television releases. Indeed, the network's MGM/UA film library includes twenty-two hundred MGM titles, along with older Warner Bros. and RKO films. TNT debuted on October 3 in 17 million cable homes—by far the largest network launch to date in cable history (Fryman and Hudson 190-93). Turner Network Television is best described as a broad-appeal channel because it offers a mix of programming similar to that available on broadcast TV networks. TNT and CNN were both ranked as having the fifth most cable subscribers, 81.8 million each, by the National Cable Television Association's 2001 ranking of the top twenty cable TV networks ("Top 20").

Since its inception, TNT has financed or produced many large-scale original productions. The network is among the most active producer of made-for-cable films. Because of Ted Turner's strong interest in Westerns2 and the need for Turner Broadcasting to attract press attention for its subscriber networks among cable operators and customers,3 TNT began creating and promoting original productions. Following its strategy of adapting popular literary works, the network sought to develop stories based on established Western authors and featuring actors familiar to the genre. Turner Productions' first Westerns were Billy the Kid (1989), based on Gore Vidal's book, and Montana (1990), based on a Larry McMurtry story, starring Richard Crenna and Gena Rowlands as "a brawling Western couple" (Beale 6). The cable channel resisted producing a regular, domestic Western series, like Bonanza (1959-1973), The Big Valley (1965-1969), or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1998), the type of series that had dominated the prime-time genre since the mid-1960s, and a genre most likely to appeal to a cross section of adult male and female viewers (MacDonald 47-81). Instead, Turner Productions sought to produce traditional-style Westerns featuring rough-edged protagonists who live by a moral code and who inevitably find them-

Westerns Films
Conn Conagher (Sam Elliot) with Evie Teale (Katherine Ross) in Louis L'Amour's Conagher.

selves drawn into a fight with lawless villains.4 Although TNT's heroes are often softened by the love of a good-hearted woman, the violence of their conflicts owes more to the popularity of Clint Eastwood lone-gunfighter Westerns than the legacy of the television domestic Western.

One of the network's earliest successes was the 1991 film version of Louis L'Amour's Conagher, starring Sam Elliot and Katherine Ross. The film, which debuted as TNT's highest-rated two-hour drama, tells the parallel stories of a lonely widow trying to raise two stepchildren on an isolated homestead, and a tough, honest cowboy battling cattle rustlers. Eventually, the two stories intertwine into an unique frontier romance.

In 1995, Turner Broadcasting merged with the corporate media giant Time Warner. That year TNT produced three major efforts: Avenging Angel, starring Tom Berenger and Charlton Heston; a film version of Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage,5 starring Ed Harris and Amy Madigan; and The Good Old Boys, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek. From a mystery-Western (Avenging Angel) to a comedy-drama set in the early 1900s (The Good Old Boys), these movies illustrated the great potential of the genre.6

In 1997, TNT's film version of an Elmore Leonard Western, Last Stand at Saber River, attracted the greatest number of viewers ever for an original movie on cable. According to an A. C. Nielsen survey, some 5.1 million Americans tuned in to the Tom Selleck vehicle. Overall, the cable movie garnered a 7.3 rating, making it the third highest for an original cable movie (Haddad).

Another reason for TNT's production of Westerns is its corporate relationship, after the AOL and Time Warner merger, with Warner Home Video. Through this association, the network distributes many of its popular made-for-TV movies to retail and rental stores across the country. Because Hollywood produces fewer Westerns every year, TNT has established a marketing niche as the primary producer of new Westerns. In 2001, Warner Home Video became the nation's leading distributor when it increased its market share of the $4.1 billion rental market from 15.6 percent to 18 percent on the strength of having seventeen of the top one hundred rental titles (Herrick, "Buy-Product" 2). Although a 2002 antitrust suit by independent retailers terminated the contract practice, Warner's long-standing revenue-sharing contract with Blockbuster, the nation's leading home video rental chain, has filled the stores with product, including TNT Westerns (Herrick, "Retailer News" 29-30).

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  • Esko
    Does tnt show westerns?
    9 months ago

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