‘Yellowstone’ is a huge hit that started with small town fans

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The drama about a ranch family fighting intruders began three years ago in cities like Missoula, Mont., Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Albany, Ga., According to audience data. Viewers in big cities didn’t realize it until later. Now “Yellowstone” is everywhere.

The show ends its fourth season on Sunday night with an average of 10.4 million total viewers on the Paramount network, up from 4.5 million in season 1. Season 4 began with John Dutton, the Flint Patriarch of the Yellowstone ranch played by Kevin Costner, bleeding on a deserted road. Fans will watch the finale to see if the season ends with another explosion of violence and melodrama.

Network executives are monitoring its audience for the progress of an aggressive expansion plan that relies on series co-creator Taylor Sheridan. A producer who releases scripts on his ranch in Weatherford, Texas, Mr. Sheridan, 52, has cornered the market for love stories.

In December, Mr. Sheridan’s final episode, “1883,” a prequel to “Yellowstone” on a wagon train, became the most-viewed original series on the Paramount + streaming service. Mr. Sheridan’s team is under contract to deliver at least five new shows over the next three years to MTV Entertainment Studios, a division of ViacomCBS. The company is betting its shows can win both streaming and the old world of TV channels and time slots.

The unconventional path “Yellowstone” has taken to dominate ratings shows how audiences can grow and change over the lifespan of a series and how regional differences still matter despite shows like “Squid Game” that turn into big hits overnight on global streaming platforms.

Lafayette, Indiana, is a stronghold of “Yellowstone”. The area around Purdue University had the highest proportion of viewers in Season 1 of any small market outside of Montana and Wyoming, the region where “Yellowstone” takes place, according to Nielsen data on viewers. 25 to 54 years old.

Among the loyalists is Jim Hedrick, 62, whose company Horizon Ag Consulting works with farmers in the Midwest. He says “Yellowstone” taps into topics that matter in his circles, like family cohesion and rural development.

“They’re really digging into parts of the culture that are endangered in this country,” Mr. Hedrick said.

When “Yellowstone” premiered in 2018, the show ranked fourth in the 25 to 54 age group in the least populated television markets, classified by Nielsen as D markets. In the regions the most populous in the country, dubbed A markets, which include New York and Los Angeles – “Yellowstone” did not make the top 50.

When Chris McCarthy, president and CEO of ViacomCBS Media Networks, got oversight of “Yellowstone” in 2019, he had to decide whether to cancel the expensive series or try to expand it. He used the company’s other TV brands to promote the series, simultaneously showing it on CMT and marketing it to younger audiences on MTV.

For Season 3, it moved “Yellowstone” from Wednesday night to Sunday to show a glossy series with a movie star on a night that viewers associate with premium rates on premium networks.

“We had to do things that would signal that the show has a coastal appeal,” said Mr. McCarthy. “It’s a misconception that you can only play on the ribs or the center. The question is, how do you play both?”

The shows that make the buzz on the coast often fall flat elsewhere. Another family business saga, HBO’s “Succession”, critics’ favorite and Emmy winner, garnered 73% of its audience in A markets such as LA and New York in its final season. The show barely registered on the D markets.

Fans of “Yellowstone” are now more evenly distributed, with markets A and D each accounting for 28% of season 4 viewers.

The Halloween costumes were the gift for David Glasser, managing director of 101 Studios, which produces Mr. Sheridan’s shows. During the first seasons of “Yellowstone,” friends of his in Tennessee and Texas sent in pictures of themselves disguised as Beth, Dutton’s fire-breathing daughter, and his henchman, Rip, a couple. played by Kelly Reilly and Cole Hauser. This Halloween, his Hollywood friends became Beth (hanging cigarette) and Rip (black beard and cowboy hat).

Geography and setting are everything for “Yellowstone”, which devotes lengthy stretches to cowboys (including one played by Mr. Sheridan) graciously arguing over cattle. “There is an ongoing war against our way of life,” John Dutton says as he announces a race for governor of Montana.

Mr. Glasser says fans anywhere can relate to. “It doesn’t matter where you sit, on the coast or in Central America, it’s about protecting your family,” he says.

A year ago, Mr. McCarthy signed a production contract with Mr. Sheridan for approximately $ 200 million.

In November came out “Mayor of Kingstown,” about brothers who hold a grip on a prison in their Michigan hometown. Then, “1883”, with Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.

Both shows premiered on Paramount + and Paramount Network after episodes of “Yellowstone,” where they scored big – “1883 ″ had the biggest cable premiere since 2015. The mandate was to lasso viewers and direct them to Paramount +, where the shows will end their races.

A missing link in this strategy is the fact that “Yellowstone” itself is not available on Paramount +. Prior to the service’s launch, “Yellowstone” was licensed to NBCUniversal’s rival streaming platform, Peacock. The solution, says Tanya Giles, director of streaming programming at ViacomCBS, was to bolster Paramount + with new shows in Sheridan’s Verse.

“’Yellowstone’ is in its prime right now and we can build on that popularity,” she says.

Expected in 2022: “Kansas City,” starring Sylvester Stallone as a retired gangster in trouble, and “Landman,” about West Texas oil workers.

The heavy marketing and cross-promotion involved might turn off grassroots fans. “I don’t necessarily care about that part,” says Mr. Hedrick, the Indiana “Yellowstone” fan, who tires of all the commercials. “But I understand that they are building a brand.”

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