Yesellowstone, a violent drama about family legacy and waves of change in the mountains of Montana, is the most-watched show on cable in the United States, although depending on where you live you may not know maybe not.
The Paramount Network drama starring Kevin Costner as the stony and scheming owner of the largest contiguous ranch in the United States drew more than 11 million people for its fourth season finale earlier this month without airing in continuous, ratings not seen since the heyday of such 2010s staples like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, which were both widely popular and critically acclaimed. (The sixth season of HBO’s fantasy epic, for example, averaged 10.61 million viewers in its first week, including streaming; AMC’s zombie apocalypse peaked in its fifth season in 2014. to 2015 with an average of 14.4 million viewers per episode).
Still, though it beats in the same league as Thrones and The Walking Dead without a clear streaming release (full seasons have been licensed to NBC’s Peacock, while new episodes land on CBS’ fledgling Paramount streaming network +), Yellowstone does not court critical attention or media scrutiny like its predecessors. Co-creator Taylor Sheridan (who also serves as head writer and occasional director) has drawn praise for gritty neo-westerns such as Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, but Yellowstone, which premiered in 2018, has been ignored by price discounts. . (He received his first major nomination, a 2022 Screen Actors Guild nod for Best Ensemble in a Drama, on Wednesday.) Culture websites such as Vulture and the Ringer publish episode-by-episode recaps, but there is no There aren’t nearly the essays, media Twitter chatter or background analyzes of, say, HBO’s Succession, the buzzing, murderous portrait of a media conglomerate family that parallels the thematic framework of Yellowstone – mega-wealth , bickering siblings, a family guarding its assets – and provides a stark contrast to its lack of critical-minded attention.
Streaming was meant to be the great equalizer, whether for access to content (see: global megahits like Netflix’s Squid Game, the South Korean dystopian drama that reached 111 million households worldwide in late 2021) or its segmentation into competing platforms at war for their niche and a slice of IP. Yellowstone presents a fascinating rebuke to these trends: a word-of-mouth hit in the heartland, for lack of a better term for the vague but distinct geographic segmentation in the United States, and a phenomenon of cultural silos between urban cable consumers and ex-urban (small towns surrounded by farmland, suburbs, small towns, rural communities) basic cable consumers. Paramount is building a popular universe around the success of Yellowstone – the 1883 prequel, starring country super couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as well as Sam Elliott, marked the biggest debut for a cable show since December 2015 – and a good part of the country did not notice anything.
It’s hard not to compare Yellowstone and Succession, both on a superficial level and as an indicator of cultural bubbles. Although tonally opposite – Succession is jagged, cynical and lyrically profane, Yellowstone elegant, melodramatic and prone to philosophical musings – both depict ultra-wealthy scions scrambling to protect their assets (a media conglomerate akin to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp; a ranch the size of Rhode Island) from threats outside the family (other corporations; real estate developers and Native American tribes seeking restitution).
Both engage in murky business disputes (hostile takeovers and shareholder meetings, land and water rights). The two patriarchs prefer to travel by helicopter, while the offspring (three sons and one daughter, the toughest of them all) compete for attention and approval. Both established lush visual motifs to communicate lofty ambitions – for Succession, the airy, impersonal luxury suggests the utter soullessness of mega-wealth; for Yellowstone, wide shots of mountainous country and ruthless depictions of working on a ranch show that its land is the soul worth fighting for.
But for all the cultural fixation, Succession only appeals to a fraction of Yellowstone’s audience. The Emmy-winning drama drew its biggest audience yet, 1.7 million viewers across all platforms (including HBO Max), for its third season finale in December, largely concentrated in major cities where it developed as a word-of-mouth hit (and meme generator) for the web; 73% of its viewership for the recent finale was in so-called A-markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Yellowstone, on the other hand, has grown in popularity outside of major markets, which account for 28% of its fourth season viewers, according to the Wall Street Journal. The season premiere in November 2021, for example, drew 14.7 million non-streaming viewers and did particularly well in small towns whose agricultural foundations resonate with the ranching sequences of the movie. issue and focus on property disputes – Abilene, Texas; Boise, Idaho; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Lexington, Kentucky; and Topeka, Kansas, not to mention the area around Bozeman, Montana, where the show is largely set.
Part of this divide is due to delivery mechanisms – basic cable, which contains the Paramount Network, reached peak market saturation in 2010 with 105 million homes; in 2021 it has fallen to around 82.9 million and is older. HBO and HBO Max, a premium cable network and streaming service, by contrast had 45.2 million U.S. subscribers last year. Part of it is due to the savvy marketing efforts of Paramount’s parent company, ViacomCBS, which pushed the show into smaller markets. And part of it boils down to the theme: more than anything else, Yellowstone is preoccupied with land ownership – most of the conflict stems from Costner’s John Dutton and his family trying to keep the ranch in their name – an idealization of the American dream of home ownership that resonates with the public. outside cities of mobile tenants and in places where ownership of physical assets dictates local power.
In other words, Yellowstone is the spectacle of what historian Patrick Wyman has called the American Gentry – the local elite class of land and business owners in small markets across the country, whose politics have tendency to bias the conservatives and whose influence tends to diminish. covered compared to flashy oligarchs, billionaires, and those whose wealth isn’t tied to a specific location. As inherited wealth in the United States tends to disappear, this class is disproportionately white, much like the public in Yellowstone; the show consistently ranks among the least diverse viewers of television in the United States (in February 2021, for example, Yellowstone generated the lowest proportion of non-white viewers of any show, at 23%, according to the company television analysis Samba).
Yellowstone’s conservative ethos has led some commentators to defend it as a rebuke from the liberal media – former View host Meghan McCain, for example, attributed her success to being “not awake”, and several media called it “prestige TV for conservatives”. Which is true, to some extent; Yellowstone is conservative in a tiny sense, as its primary concern is the sense of a way of life (i.e. white ranchers) threatened by progress, outsiders, and a changing culture. “I don’t know if it’s a uniquely American fear or just a human fear: the fear that a way of life will end,” Sheridan told The New York Times in late December 2021. “That’s what drives our politics right now. I think it’s a massive theme, this fear of losing someone you love or a place you love. It’s pretty universal.
Sheridan is onto something. This is an oversimplification to dismiss Yellowstone as a “red state estate”, but the show’s richness and victimhood fantasy (and genuinely entertaining romance, insults and conversational failures) clearly resonated out of bounds. critical buzz concentrated in liberal-leaning cities. Depending on your social circle, that’s either self-evident or surprising — a fact that, like the show attracting millions of Americans to live TV a week, demands careful consideration.