How ‘Yellowstone’ Defied the Odds to Become the Most-Watched Show on TV
The numbers are mind-boggling. The Season 4 finale of “Yellowstone” hauled in 9.3 million viewers on the Paramount Network alone. Overall viewing topped 11 million homes. That’s up 81% over the Season 3 finale. And it’s the most-watched cable show since a 2017 episode of “The Walking Dead.” Even more impressive, the show airs on the Paramount Network - a channel that shows a staggering amount of “Bar Rescue” and Chuck Lorre sitcom reruns. How did this happen? And what can streaming services learn from the show’s success?
Follow the violent world of the Dutton family, who controls the largest contiguous ranch in the United States. Led by their patriarch John Dutton, the family defends their property against constant attack by land developers, an Indian reservation, and America’s first National Park.
The show debuted on June 20, 2018 to a solid 2.83 million viewers. Many in that audience were likely drawn in by the star power of Kevin Costner. Although he’s shifted to supporting roles in movies, he hasn’t been the lead of a $100 million film since “The Bodyguard” 30 years ago. Still, in an age of fragmented entertainment options, a “name” like Costner can pull in curious viewers, and that’s more of a chance than most series get.
This is the latest instance of a successful pattern: a star on the wane takes a shot on a series, and that can break through the clutter. Although “Party of Five” had been off the air for four years, Matthew Fox still had enough name recognition to help “Lost” perform well in its debut in 2004. In fact, Michael Keaton was slotted for Fox’s role when the character was supposed to die in the pilot episode.
Queen Latifah had her run as a big-screen star, and that helped “The Equalizer” post solid audience numbers. In fact, the CBS procedural lineup is full of those types of actors - Wilmer Valderrama, Mark Harmon, Scott Caan, Chris O’Donnell, and LL Cool J.
Well-known actors have always helped new shows get a head start, but they alone are not a bulletproof formula. Just ask Matt LeBlanc, who literally starred as his “Friends” character in the spin-off show, “Joey.” It flamed out after two seasons. And you could probably win a bar bet by knowing that it somehow survived two whole years.
Related: You Can Now Binge All of ‘Yellowstone’ Season 4 For Free: This is How to Do It
Taylor Sheridan is proving to have the Midas touch. A look at his resume includes some of the best scripts of the last decade: “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” are phenomenal films. “Wind River” is a gripping drama set on a Native American reservation. And he cranked out all three of those films in a 2-year span.
That track record alone should set Sheridan up for a long run in Hollywood, and the success of “Yellowstone” should assure it.
It’s also important to note that Sheridan had a track record of success before getting the green light to run with “Yellowstone.” This is a similar path to Vince Gilligan, who worked on “The X-Files” before launching “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” Before Matthew Weiner created “Mad Men,” he worked on “The Sopranos.”
NBC can always turn to Dick Wolf and CBS can fire up the Chuck Lorre machine, but there’s something to be said for identifying young talent and simply letting them run with their ideas.
Having lived in the rural parts of Texas and Wyoming, Sheridan purposely set the series in Montana. “Yellowstone” just looks different from other shows. You’ll see cowboy hats and horses and beautiful western landscapes. That aesthetic gives it a way of standing out.
Some of the biggest shows of the last quarter-century have featured landscapes or costumes that easily set them apart: “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Lost,” “Mad Men.” You could even make the case that “The Voice” outlasted other “American Idol” knockoffs simply because of the rotating chair gimmick.
In some cases, the originality of a premise or setting has triggered a slew of knockoffs. “Mad Men” begat short-lived throwback 60s dramas like “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club.” “Lost” gave us “FlashForward,” “Terra Nova,”“Under the Dome,” and other high-concept shenanigans.
In the case of “Yellowstone,” we’re focused on people and places that usually don’t get the spotlight. If you’re looking for a sitcom set in a New York apartment, your plate has been full since the dawn of television. There is power in providing something unique, aimed at an underserved audience. Paramount+ is doubling down on the show with Sheridan’s prequel series “1883,” which is showing incredible pull despite being set in (…checks notes…) the year 1883.
This is where “Yellowstone” is showing its true strength. While many shows might pull together a star, a brilliant creator, and an unusual setting, word-of-mouth is what turns a slow burn into a bonfire.
These big jumps in season-to-season viewing occur because people are spreading the word about the series, giving fans a chance to catch up on older seasons through Peacock. This, too, is not unprecedented. “Breaking Bad” continued gathering steam because new viewers could catch up on Netflix. Even “The Office” was an early beneficiary of this trend - NBC had the sitcom on the chopping block until sales of episodes on iTunes forced them to reconsider.
The other thing to note is that the show remained relatively flat in 2018 and 2019 before a modest jump in 2020 and a huge leap in 2021. This runs counter to the quick hook Netflix has shown in recent years. Would “Yellowstone” have survived without a three-year runway to show growth? In that way, its home on the Paramount Network has been a blessing. It didn’t have to haul in 10 million viewers upon debut. The show had time to find its footing, and now it’s a force to be reckoned with. HBO has seen the benefit of its extraordinary patience as well, allowing ratings-challenged series like “The Wire” to grow into landmark television without the pressure of audience-chasing gimmicks.
While this formula isn’t foolproof, it seems more likely to achieve breakout success than an endless string of superhero series or yet another miniseries about a husband cheating on his wife. If a streaming service manages to pull together at least 3 of the 4 key elements, they stand a shot at a tentpole property. So let’s keep our eyes peeled for the next young creator armed with a star, a unique setting, and a long runway, and we’ll see if we can identify the next “Yellowstone” before it blows up.
Related: Why Isn’t ‘Yellowstone’ on Paramount+? Where Can You Stream the New Season?