"Yellowstone": An epic series tries to define a struggling network


Sometimes, we expect films to be big and stupid or small and smart. (Sometimes, we expect the same of people; sometimes, we're right.) But "Yellowstone" beats all expectations.It's big, sprawling, ambitious and intelligent; it's also the best bet for the struggling Paramount Network to define itself. The show has its impressive debut Wednesday (June 20); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In an era of
re-invention, we should be used to this: Cable networks change their
names and identities with the ease of a master spy or a third-rate
scam artist.

The Christian
Broadcasting Network became The Family Channel, then Fox Family, ABC
Family and Freeform. The Nashville Network became the National
Network, then Spike and now Paramount.

That leaves viewers
perplexed. For its first five wobbly months, they had nothing special
to identify the Paramount Network with. Now they do: “Yellowstone”
starts Wednesday.

“It truly
encompasses everything we want Paramount Network to be .... It looks
like a movie, trust me,” said Keith Cox, the network's production
chief.

In this rare case,
you can trust a network guy. Cox can be wrong about other things,
including the “Heathers” series. (“The show's so phenomenal, it
needs to get out; people have gotta see that show,” he said in
January ... before Paramount decided people shouldn't see it at all.)
But his enthusiasm for “Yellowstone” is justified. “That could
be on HBO,” he said. “That could be anywhere. It's so epic.”

It's filmed in the
expanses of Montana and Utah. “We have a very good job,” said
Kevin Costner, who stars. “(We) wake up in a place as beautiful as
that.”

But this isn't one
of those shows with big vistas and small ideas. It's from Taylor
Sheridan, who wrote “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water” (drawing
an Oscar nomination) and “Wind River,” which he directed.

The acclaimed “Wind
River” has much in common with “Yellowstone,” including Gil
Birmingham and Kelsey Asbille in key American Indian roles. Still,
Sheridan sees that movie as “the opposite of what 'Yellowstone' has
been. We had no money; we had no time.”

Now he has the
backing of a big-time studio, eager to give its namesake network a
strong start.

Paramount Pictures
has been around under various names since 1912. (Universal is the
only older studio, and that's only by eight days.) It has bought
various cable networks, including MTV, CMT, BET, Comedy Central,
Nickelodeon ... and what was then The Nashville Network.

After Paramount took
it, that became The National Network in 2000. In 2003 it became
Spike, inexplicably calling itself “the first network for men,”,
with lots of movies and wrestlers and such.

Since then, it's
created few essential series. When the Paramount Network began in
January, Kevin Kay (its president) said “We don't want the Spike
audience to go away” -- but he kept only a few Spike shows: “Bar
Rescue,” “Ink Master” and “Lip Sync Battle.”

That leaves
Paramount trying to define itself. Its first effort (a mini-series
about the Waco stand-off) was well-received; its second (“Heathers”)
was not. Some critics savaged the dark high school drama; Paramount
pulled it before its debut (citing the Parkland shootings),
re-scheduled it for July 7, then pulled it again and began looked for
another network to sell it to.

A third show
(“American Woman”) has been OK, but “Yellowstone” is the one
that could fit the network name. As a movie studio, Paramount is the
home of “Gump,” “Grease” and “Godfather,” plus the
Indiana Jones and “Star Trek” films and more. And “Yellowstone”
feels like a mega-movie.

Costner says he
plays “a pretty complicated guy” with a giant ranch and a life he
lives by helicopter and by horseback. “He's half in the Western
world and half modern-day CEO,” Costner said.

His daughter is a
fierce businesswoman, one son is a lawyer and the other had a falling
out. “I've come back from war,” said Luke Grimes, who plays him.
“I served as a Navy SEAL, so aspects of normal life are tough for
me .... I've moved onto the reservation with my wife.”

That's Asbille's
character. “She's a young working mom,” Asbille said. “She's
been through Hell this season.” But, at least, she's done it in a
heavenly setting.

-- “Yellowstone”
debuts 9-10:56 p.m. Wednesday (June 20). That reruns at 10:56 p.m.
and 1 a.m., then Saturday night at 1 a.m. and Sunday at 11:01 p.m.;
also, 11 p.m. June 20 on CMT.

-- After that, the
10-hour season is 10 p.m. Wednesdays, rerunning at 1 a.m.

-- On Thursdays,
Paramount has “American Woman” at 10 p.m. (rerunning at 1 a.m.)
and “Lip Sync Battle” at 10:30 and 11. “Lip Sync Battle”
reruns often.

-- “Bar Rescue”
is 10 p.m. Sundays, preceded by a rerun marathon starting at 11 a.m.
It also has reruns on weekdays, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. “Ink Master”
has finished its 10th season. Beyond that, Paramount has
lots of “Friends” reruns and action movies.

 

It's been a re-invention era for PBS and its president

Keywords

Somehow, we don't expect change at PBS. We expect the same faces -- from Fred Rogers to English kings -- to be there eternally. But during her 12 years as head of the network, Paula Kerger has brought a subtle transformation. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Lately, PBS has been
asking people to name their favorite book.

So let's aim that
question at the PBS president: What is Paula Kerger's favorite book?

“Every time I'm
asked that, I seem to have a different answer,” she said. “But
I'm starting to realize it's 'The Great Gatsby.'”

She's read it at
least three times -- PBS people are the ones who read – and keeps
finding something different. “It's beautifully written and speaks
to the power of re-invention,” she said.

That fits the fact
that Kerger and her network have been sharply re-invented. “This is
such an interesting time to be in the media .... It's a time when
everything seems new,” she said.

Sure, PBS has lots
of the old. It has the 30th season of “American
Experience,” 36th of “Frontline,” 40th of
“Antiques Roadshow,” 44th of “NewsHour,” 47th
of “Masterpiece,” 48th of “Sesame Street.”

But Kerger was soon
talking about the network's digital studio and an online emphasis
that ranges from kids' games to “Frontline” interview
transcripts. And PBS' line-up has made profound changes; it has:

-- Arts programs
every Friday. Some are documentaries, but viewers often can catch
theater or a concert – ranging this season from country to hip hop.

-- Other designated
nights – history and current affairs on Tuesdays, science on
Wednesdays.

-- A new, all-day
kids' channel. “If you've ever had a kid who's sick, you know how
important that is,” Kerger said. This isn't just fluff, she said.
“It's all built to help kids succeed in school” and in life.

-- And a surge of
Sunday drama. The night now has more shows and higher ratings.

In the process, PBS
has managed to be both sturdy and popular. One survey shows it's the
most trusted national institution; Nielsen shows it has jumped from
No. 15 to No. 6 in total audience.

You could argue that
Kerger has benefited from perfect timing. Her 12 years as president
have included the big boost that came when “Downton Abbey”
debuted in 2010. Her shows -- “NewsHour” and “Frontline” and
such – are part of the current surge in serious reporting.

“More Americans
are hungry for substance over soundbites,” she said, adding later:
“People are done with the Kardashians .... They're done with the
circus.”

Isn't this also a
promising era for women? “It still is a hard time for women in
media,” Kerger insisted.

You can't tell that
at PBS; as “Masterpiece” chief Rebecca Eaton put it: “This is a
network that is led by a strong woman -- and programming decisions
are made by Beth Hoppe, another strong woman.”

Women lead many of
the most substantial shows -- “NewsHour,” “Nova,”
“Frontline,” “Masterpiece” and more. When Charlie Rose was
dumped from latenight amid sexual-abuse accusations, Christiane
Amanpour was chosen to replace him, in a show that starts in July.

For Kerger, there's
also been personal re-invention. When PBS chose her a dozen years
ago, she was nearing 50 and had mainly worked in “development”
(fundraising, mostly), not programming.

Still, she says, the
interest was there. “I grew up (near Baltimore) in an area where we
didn't have a chance to go to a lot” of theater and concerts. But
the school arts program was strong; so was public-TV. Her favorites
were early “Masterpiece” and a local nature show called “Hodge
Podge Lodge.”

At the University of
Maryland, she switched from pre-med to business administration.
Kerger did development, including for the PBS station in New York.
She became its station manager in 2000 and COO in 2004, then moved up
in 2006; at 61, she's the longest-running president in PBS history.

An adopted New
Yorker, she knows life is different elsewhere. “When you look at
something like 'Hamilton,' you realize the relatively small number of
people who actually get to see it.”

So PBS did
“Hamilton's America,” a ratings success. It's done some full
musicals, the usual operas and dance shows and lots more pop
concerts. It has ranged from poetry to “The Great American Read,”
which chose Americans' 100 favorite novels and will eventually name
the No. 1.

It has re-invented
itself. Jay Gatsby would approve.

 

Yes, "Walker, Texas Ranger" is now eternal


This new world of digital TV antennas has brought many things, from old Chrismas specials to PBS' 24-hour kids' TV channel. But most of all, it has meant eternal life for TV reruns. The latest addition is "Walker, Texas Ranger" -- all 196 episodes of it. Here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

This was the show
that just kept going.

“Walker, Texas
Ranger” lasted eight seasons – which is one more than “The West
Wing” or “Cagney & Lacey” or “Hill Street Blues.”

It was sometimes
overlooked, especially at awards time. Those other three shows
totaled 224 Emmy nominations, winning 60 times; “Walker” had one
nomination, for sound editing.

But it persisted.
“You can't kill it with a stick,” Paul Haggis used to say with a
grin.

Haggis was one of
four scriptwriters for the pilot, then never did another episode. (He
had other things to keep him busy, including the Oscar-winning
“Crash.”) But as co-creator, he has a perpetual payday.

And yes, Chuck
Norris' show seems eternal. It went to 100 countries; its reruns
persisted on cable ... and now jump into a newer world: Beginning
Monday (June 4), “Walker” has four episodes each weekday
afternoon on GetTV, which many viewers can get via digital antenna or
satellite.

Would anyone have
predicted this sort of success? Norris' co-stars insist they did.

“I knew that Chuck
had a deal for 13 episodes on the air,” Clarence Gilyard said. And
“I knew that Chuck had a huge following.”

Sheree Wilson says
she also knew Norris would succeed. “I'd already had the privilege
or working with Chuck for three months on a movie.”

Just before she was
cast in “Walker,” both had been in Israel filming “Hellbound.”
The story -- a murder mystery in which the killer turned out to be an
ancient, supernatural entity – wasn't your usual Norris kick-film;
it was shelved, then went straight to video.

By then, Norris'
career could survive any blip. “Chuck was a masculine icon,”
Gilyard said.

He had done big
business with Cold War films – two “Missing in Action” ones,
two “Delta Force” ones and “Invasion USA” -- and with
well-made cop films, “Code of Silence” and “Lone Wolf McQuade.”

The latter was the
basis in 1993 for “Walker,” the story of a modern Ranger who
reverted to old-time violence. His young colleague was played by
Gilyard, who says it was a solid match. “Both of us were from the
Air Force; we were used to being military and being physical.”

Gilyard, whose dad
was a career airman, had grown up on bases and went to the Air Force
Academy. Norris was in the Air Force, where he learned martial arts.
He became a champion, then a teacher, then a movie star. “When a
star says, 'Would you like to do a part with me?' you say yes,”
Gilyard said.

Gilyard was coming
off sidekick success on “Matlock”; Wilson was coming off
“Dallas,” where her character married Bobby Ewing (Patrick
Duffy), then -- in the Bobby's-wife tradition -- was killed.

“People don't know
that Patrick is a tremendous comedian,” Wilson said. “Patrick and
Larry (Hagman) were both like that. All they did was play.”

Norris, now 78, had
more of a no-nonsense efficiency on his set. He was, after all, doing
movie-style action scenes on a TV timetable. Still, Gilyard insists,
“Chuck is a very funny guy.”

In the final season,
Wilson's character (a prosecutor) married Walker. There was a TV
movie and then nothing ... except that “Walker: never really ends.

Now Gilyard and
Wilson, 62 and 59, are touring in “Driving Miss Daisy” onstage.
And “Walker” is persisting in the digital age. Don't try to kill
it, with or without a stick.

-- “Walker, Texas
Ranger,” 2-6 p.m. weekdays, GetTV, beginning June 4

-- GetTV is on Dish
(Channel 373) and on a digital sub-channels in most areas; check
www.get.tv

 

Semi-hidden history: For 61 years, Americans flatly banned the Chinese


As the commercial networks scramble for summer attention, PBS remains steady: In any season, it includes some compelling documentaries. Here's the story I sent papers, about a terrific film ("Chinese Exclusion Act") airing Tuesday, March 29, on PBS:

By Mike Hughes

For many PBS
viewers, the “Chinese Exclusion Act” film will deliver a jolt.

It had the same
effect on its narrator. “Several times, ... I just stopped,” Hoon
Lee said. “It was difficult to process what was coming out of my
mouth.”

He's a Harvard grad
who thought he knew Asian-American history. But this, he said, was
new: “When I heard that the largest mass-lynching on record in our
country was of Chinese people ...”

That was in 1871 Los
Angeles, when 18 to 20 men were lynched. Later, a different type of
mob action happened in Congress.

The Chinese
Exclusion Act of 1882 said flatly that no Chinese people could move
to the U.S. ... and those already here couldn't be citizens. “They
were the only group (specifically) excluded until 1917,” filmmaker
Ric Burns said.

That exclusion
lingered until 1943 ... and is often overlooked by historians. “My
colleagues and I ... didn't know anything about it,” Burns said.

Li-Shin Yu -- the
editor of many Burns documentaries, including the epic “New York”
-- said she knew only some of the basics. Lee -- the Korean-American
actor who has starred on cable (Job in the “Banshee” series) and
Broadway (“The King and I”) -- was “frankly embarrassed that I
knew so little.”

For six-plus years,
co-directors Yu and Burns dug into details. During that time,
immigration issues re-surfaced in a presidential campaign. “1882
.... seems to be like today,” Burns said.

During that era, Lee
said, Chinese-Americans kept fighting back. “They would win battles
through the legal system ... and through government.”

That's a slow
method. It wasn't until 1943 that the act was repealed ... 1965 that
the Hart Celler Act addressed immigration biases ... and 2012 that
Congress passed a formal apology.

-- “American
Experience: Chinese Exclusion Act,” 8-10 p.m. Tuesday (May 29), PBS

 

Memorial Day eve concert: The statistics become real, human stories


Each year, PBS' "National Memorial Day Concert" -- on the eve of Memorial Day, actually -- offers a rich blend of music and tributes. It can have a strong impact on some viewers ... and on some participants. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Many of us get the
general idea of Memorial Day, without the real impact.

In New Jersey, Mary
McCormack saw the parades and heard her dad's memories of being a
teenaged Marine. In Virginia, Charles Esten helped at the massive
Arlington cemetery.

Still, McCormack
said, she didn't get the depth until speaking last year at PBS'
annual concert on Memorial Day eve. “It was life-changing for me.”

On Sunday, she'll
have her second time at the concert; Esten will have his first.

He'll sing to the
masses. As a star of TV's “Nashville,” he's faced a speedway
crowd of 130,000; Sunday's crowd may double that. “When you get
that many, it's hard to tell the difference,” he said.

Esten is part of a
music line-up that includes Leona Lewis, three Broadway stars –
Cynthia Erivo, Alfie Boe and Megan Hilty – and the National
Symphony. Producers told him to sing “Some Gave All,” by Billy
Ray Cyrus. “If they had asked me to choose, I couldn't have done
better,” he said.

And McCormack will
read a tribute ... which is what affected her so deeply last year.

“Every now and
then, we get statistics” of casualties, she said. “But that
doesn't make it real to us. Then we hear about one person. We see
baby pictures and high school graduation pictures.”

Last year, she
introduced Jacke Walton, who was 6 when her dad said: “I'll be
back. Be a good girl.'”

In 1971, SSgt Lewis
Walton and six others had a reconnaissance mission near Laos. They
weren't heard from again; his body was identified 45 years later.

At last year's
concert, McCormack told about his daughter, a comforting force for
others whose family members died in war. This year, she'll tell of
Leigh Ann Hester. “She's pretty incredible.”

In 2005, Sgt
Hester's Humvee was ambushed in Iraq. Firing a rifle and throwing
grenades, she led an attack into enemy fire; she became the first
woman since World War II to win a Silver Star in combat.

Such stories neatly
fit this year – the 150th Memorial Day, the 70th
anniversary of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act ... and the
year after Hollywood scandals put a fresh emphasis on women's rights.
“I have three daughters and I want to make sure” they're in a
fair world, McCormack said.

The idea of strong
women has often filled her own life. In make-believe, she's been a
tough federal marshal (“In Plain Sight”) and the deputy national
security chief (“West Wing”). In real life, she may be the only
Hollywood star whose sister is a Supreme Court justice.

Their mom (a
therapist) and dad (who had a car dealership and an ice cream parlor)
nudged them toward community and charity work. “My sister was
always very conscious of social justice,” she said. “She had a
file cabinet in her room when she was 13, with files for 'arms race,'
'hunger' and so on.”

Bridget McCormack,
now 51, would become a law professor who started the Michigan
Innocence Clinic and, in 2013, was elected to the Michigan Supreme
Court. Her sister, 49, admires that from afar. “We have different
skills sets,” Mary McCormack said.

At 12, she starred
(playing a boy) in “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” There was more
theater, both as a performer and a fan. “We lived close to
Broadway, so we'd go to shows.”

It was a busy,
Irish-Catholic family ... but not as busy as the one she'll have in a
series (“The Kids Are Alright”) that will air after “Rosanne”
this fall. In real life, McCormack was one of three kids. On the ABC
show, she and Michael Cutlitz have eight boys.

Esten, 52, will have
his TV return sooner. “Nashville” returns June 7, for its final
eight episodes.

“Nashville” the
show is ending, but Nashville the city is where he'll still live with
his wife and three kids. “Within a week of moving here, we knew all
our neighbors. There's a real culture of kindness.”

It's a bit like the
culture that prevails during the Memorial Day eve concert.

-- “National
Memorial Day Concert, 8 p.m. Sunday (actually, Memorial Day eve),
PBS; most stations will rerun it at 9:30.

-- Joe Mantegna and
Gary Sinise return as hosts; this time, Sinise also performs with his
Lt. Dan Band.

-- More music: Leona
Lewis, Charles Esten (“Nashville”), the National Symphony,
choruses and Broadway's Megan Hilty (“Wicked”), Cynthia Erivo
(“Color Purple”), Alfie Boe (“Les Miserables”).

-- Speakers include
Mary McCormack, Allison Janney, John Corbett, Brian Tee, Graham
Greene and Colin Powell.