Heartland

Based on novels published by Working Partners under the name Lauren Brooke, Heartland is a family drama that airs on CBC TV on Sundays at 7:00 p.m. It premiered in 2007 and is the longest-running one-hour drama in Canadian history. Set on a family ranch called Heartland, the Alberta-shot series follows Amy Fleming’s (Amber Marshall) relationships with her family, with ranch hand Ty Borden (Graham Wardle) and her special abilities as a horse whisperer. Winner of five Directors Guild of Canada Awards for best family television series, Heartland averages more than 1 million viewers per episode and is broadcast in more than 100 countries.

The cast of Heartland at CBC headquarters in Toronto, 26 March 2015.

Synopsis

Heartland is a wholesome family drama set on a ranch in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, near the fictional town of Hudson, Alberta. The series follows the Fleming-Bartlett clan through love and loss, friendship and betrayal, marriage and children.

Teenaged protagonist Amy Fleming (Amber Marshall) and her mother, Marion (Lisa Langlois), share the ability to train and help injured or abused horses by listening to them. After Marion is tragically killed in the first episode while saving a horse named Spartan, 16-year-old Amy moves in with her grandfather, Jack Bartlett (Shaun Johnston), at Heartland ranch. Amy’s older sister, Lou Fleming (Michelle Morgan), returns from New York. Together the sisters grieve for their mother and work to revive the bankrupt family ranch.

Amy begins working with Spartan and perfects her horse-whispering abilities, proving that she has a special talent for helping abused horses. Eventually the ranch opens to more horses. Ty Borden (Graham Wardle), a troubled young man who was hired by Marion before her death, stays on at the ranch as a farmhand and grows to be part of the family. In the sixth season, the family expands to include Georgie (Alisha Newton), Lou’s adopted preteen daughter.

Shaun Johnston
Johnston is a co-founder of Edmonton's Shadow Theatre (photo Gordan Dumka, courtesy Shaun Johnston).

Background

Heartland began as a series of best-selling novels published by Working Partners and written by three American authors under the pen name Lauren Brooke. There are more than 20 novels in the series, which are set on a ranch in Virginia. In 2004, Montréal investment banker Michael Weinberg purchased the rights to the series from a Hollywood producer who had intended to make a Heartland feature film. Weinberg pitched the idea for a TV series based on the novels to CBC, which was looking for a family show for the same Sunday evening timeslot once filled by The Beachcombers.

Production

Weinberg created Dynamo Films and started working with Seven24 Films to produce the pilot. Producers originally planned to shoot the series in Québec, but the recent success of Brokeback Mountain (2005), which was shot in Alberta, made the production crew reconsider the location. After the pilot, one of four the CBC was developing, garnered the best feedback from a family audience, the CBC greenlit the series.

For the first season, writers Heather Conkie, David Preston, Leila Basen, James Nadler and Sheila Prescott pulled storylines and ideas from the first eight books. New characters, such as Mallory Wells (Jessica Amlee), have been introduced, and some characters were given different backstories to make them more compelling for a television audience, such as the addition of a criminal past for Ty Borden.

The production team recruited some of the country’s best horse trainers to work with the many horses that appear on the show. They coordinate stunts and employ techniques like TTouch, a practice that builds trust between horses and humans, a main theme of the show.

The show consists of three main shooting locations in High River, Alberta: the Ranch, which includes the house, barn, paddock and jumping area; the dude ranch, which houses guests; and Maggie’s diner in the fictional town of Hudson. Interior locations are shot in a studio in Calgary.

Premiere

The series premiere on 14 October 2007 drew 513,000 viewers, beating out Global’s ‘Da Kink in My Hair as the most-watched scripted Canadian series in the Sunday 7:00 p.m. timeslot. Heartland was also ranked CBC’s second most popular new show of 2007, averaging 464,000 viewers per episode. The show often topped 700,000 viewers per episode during its second season.

Reception

A loyal fan base grew and the series broke out in its third season. The 2010 Christmas special, A Heartland Christmas, was viewed by 1.4 million people. By the ninth season, the series enjoyed an average of more than 1 million viewers for each new episode.

Television critics did not take much notice of Heartland, and when they did the show was not always met with praise. In 2014, Tony Wong of the Toronto Star wrote that the show was “Disney Channel and Reform Party-worthy fare that moves at a plodding pace.” He advocated that the show be cancelled.

International Audience

Shortly after Heartland’s premiere, the Writers Guild of America went on strike from 5 November 2007 to 12 February 2008; as a result, there were no new American TV shows produced during that period, and American networks began looking at Canadian TV series to fill the void. The strike also bolstered the CBC’s audience numbers, since there was no competition from new American shows.

By the fall of 2009, Heartland was broadcast in numerous countries, including France, Germany, Spain and Australia. It broke out in the United States in the fall of 2010 when a syndication deal saw the series air on CBS and other station groups. By 2016, the show was broadcast in 119 countries.

The show became an international success, and special events have brought fans from all over the world to Canada. In 2016, the Calgary International Film Festival honoured Heartland with a gala as its premiere. It brought in fans from across Canada, the United States and Europe.

2013 Floods

Production of the show’s seventh season, which began in May 2013, suffered severe setbacks due to the floods that inundated High Riverand downtown Calgary in June 2013. High River was evacuated, and the town’s population of 13,000 was forced to leave for weeks until the water was cleared. The town’s downtown area, including the location used for Maggie’s Diner, experienced extensive damage. Scenes that were scheduled to film there were rewritten to take place in other locations until repairs could be made.

In response to the floods, the cast and crew of the show held a tour of their Calgary studio for 1,000 fans (tickets sold out in 24 hours) and raised more than $80,000 in relief funds through a live online auction, photo opportunities and sales of T-shirts and posters.

Legacy

Over the course of its run, Heartland has contributed more than $200 million to the Alberta economy and has raised the profile of Alberta as a desirable shooting location. The province initially lacked the funding structure and tax credits to compete with areas like Toronto and Vancouver, but the success of productions such as Heartland led the Alberta government in 2015 to add $11 million in increased grants.

At the 2016 Calgary International Film Festival, Heartland helped launch a new initiative called Alberta Scene. Their “Showcase Alberta: Celebrating a Decade of Heartland” was the first event celebrating local film and television production.

October 2016 was a milestone month for the series, with 2 October marking the show’s 1,000th day of production and 19 October the broadcast of Heartland’s 125th episode, making it the longest-running one-hour TV drama in Canadian history.

Also in 2016, as part of an initiative to increase gender parity in its productions, CBCannounced a commitment to increase the number of female directors working on Heartland and the broadcaster’s other series. Women would now account for half or more of the directors of the show and/or direct half or more of the episodes.

Awards

Director’s Guild of Canada Awards

  • Television Series – Family (“Dancing in the Dark”) (2009)
  • Outstanding Team Achievement in Television Series – Family (“The Haunting of Hanley Barn”) (2010)
  • Sound Editing – Television Movie/Mini-Series “A Heartland Christmas” (2011)
  • Television Series – Family “Jackpot!” (2011)
  • Television Series – Family (“What’s in a Name”) (2012)
  • Television Series – Family (“Running Against the Wind”) (2013)
  • Television Series – Family (“Darkness and Light”) (2014)
  • Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Family Series (“Before the Darkness”) (2016)
  • Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Family Series ("A Horse with No Rider") (2017)

Alberta Media Production Industries Association (AMPIA) Awards

  • Best Director – Drama (Dean Bennett) (2008)
  • Best Cinematographer – Drama Over 30 (Craig Wrobleski) (2011)
  • Best Overall Sound – Drama (Michael Leder) (2013)
  • Best Cinematographer – Drama Over 30 (Craig Wrobleski) (2014)

Others

  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Guest Role Dramatic Series (Alberta Watson), Gemini Awards (2011)
  • Best Performance in a TV Series (Comedy or Drama) – Supporting Young Actress (Alisha Newton), Young Artist Awards (2013, 2014)
  • Domestic TV Music – Fiction (Keith Power), SOCAN Awards (2017)