- Turner Network Television's Made-for-TV Western Films and the Social Construction of Authenticity
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 2, 2003
- pp. 55-64
- View Citation
- Additional Information
David Pierson | Special In-Depth Section Turner Network Television's Made-for-TV Western Films and the Social Construction of Authenticity David Pierson University of Southern Maine Randy Smith, a member oftheWesternWriters ofAmerica, states that "some ofthe best recentWesterns have been totally the providence ofthe cable television industry." He asserts that while the major motion picture studios are stymied by marketing conservatism , cable networks, like TNT, have been producing westerns that are truly representative ofthe "best qualities ofthe genre" (Smith). In fact, Smith cites several TNT westerns as prime examples of authentic, high quality western films. Smith's comments about the "authentic" quality ofTNT's western films raise several critical questions: what is TNT's institutional and economic rationale for producing a series of original western films; how does the TNT network through its publicity, promotional materials, and films socially construct authenticity with its western film viewers; and how do these western films discursively connect to contemporary viewers? This essay will address these critical questions. TNT Cable Network and its Production of Western Films Turner Broadcasting System introduced Turner Network Television (TNT) cable network in 1988 after it achieved success with TBS and CNN. Created as a venue for Turner's vast library of films, TNT consisted almost exclusively of theatrical and television movies. TNT's MGM/UA filmlibrary includes 2,200 MGM films, along with older Warner Bros, and RKO films. TNT debuted on October 3rd in 17 million cable homes—by far the largest network launch to date in cable history. As for programming, TNT offers a showcase ofvintage motion pictures, exclusive original films, children's programming, sports, documentaries, and special events. The network's largest single original programming investment continues to be in sports production, including games from the NBA and the NFL and world championship events like the Winter Olympics (Fryman and Hudson 190-193). TNT is best described as a broad appeal cable network primarily because it offers a mix of program forms similar to those of broadcast television andthereby reaches a similarmass audience. TNT's primary cable competition is other broad appeal cable networks, especially the USA Network, and to a lesser extent the broadcast networks. According to the National Cable Television Association's 2001 ranking ofthe top 20 cable TV networks, both TNT and CNN were ranked as having the fifth most cable subscribers —81.8 million each among the networks ("Top 20"). Since its beginning, TNT has financed or produced many large scale original productions. TNT is among the most active producers of made-for-cable films. Its parent, Turner Entertainment Group, owns both Castle Rock and New Line Cinema. As a programming step to strengthen its prime time adult male viewing audience, the cable network began producing a series oforiginal westerns. Following its production strategy ofadapting popular literary works, the network sought to develop westerns based on established western authors and featuring actors familiar to the genre. Interestingly, TNT resisted producing a regular, domestic western series, like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Bonanza, or The Big Valley; the type of western program series that came to dominate the prime time western at least since the mid-1960s. The domestic western is the type of western series most likely to appeal to a cross-section of adult male and female viewers (MacDonald 47-81). Instead, TNT sought to produce traditionalstyle westerns featuring rough-edged, western protagonists who live by their own moral code and who inevitably find themselves drawn into mortal combat with their enemies. Although TNT's western protagonists are often assuaged by the love of a stronghearted woman, the intense violent nature oftheir conflicts probably owes more to the enduring popularity of Clint Eastwood's lone gunfighter westerns than the legacy of the television domestic western. One of the network's earliest successes was the 1991 film version ofLouis LAmour's Conagher (7/1/91), starring Sam Elliot and Katherine Ross. Elliot and Ross, the husband and wife team who worked together on the 1982 TV film, The Shadow Riders (9/28/82) (also adapted from a L'Amour novel) co-scripted Conagher, which debuted as TNT's highest rated two-hour drama. The film tells the stories of a lonely...