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The Ombudsman Column

Cowboys 49, Ranchers 0

The mail this past week was dominated by viewer reaction to an eight-part, eight-hour series called "Texas Ranch House." Set in 1867, each segment starts by explaining that, "This is the true story of 15 brave men and women who traveled back in time, daring to live as the early cowboys and ranchers did over 130 years ago. These modern day adventurers will endure two-and-a-half months of heat and hardship — a test of true grit. But do they have what it takes to succeed on 'Texas Ranch House'?"

As we will find out, the key words in this introduction are "modern day," because many of the scores of viewers who wrote to me clearly had trouble with some of the 15 brave people, especially some of the women who brought their "modern day" views of the role of women into this attempt at creating a living history out of a slice of the post-Civil War era almost 140 years ago, when westward expansion was underway and life was very, very rugged.

Also, keep in mind, always, that people generally write to an ombudsman to critique or complain, and it doesn't mean that those who don't write agree or disagree. It is, nevertheless, a window that is useful in bringing challenges to the attention of creative people at PBS who help to bring imaginative and engaging programs onto our screens.

At the center of this drama are basically two groups: the cowboys, including a foreman and cook, and the ranch-owner family, Bill and Lisa Cooke, their three teenage daughters, and a maid, or "girl of all work," Maura Finkelstein. The cowboys are from all over. The Cookes are from California where Bill, in real life, is a hospital administrator. Finkelstein is a Stanford student who is also, it turns out, a fine equestrian. There are also frontier traders and Comanche Indians, but the focus is on the cowboys and the ranchers. These are not actors. They are people from various walks of life who were chosen from thousands of applicants and agreed to take on this challenge of re-creating history.

Another in the 'House' Series

"Texas Ranch House" is the "latest, and most ambitious experiment in living history," according to PBS, which in recent years has also produced "Colonial House," "Manor House," "Frontier House," "1940's House," "Regency House Party," and "1900 House."

Viewers will often e-mail to say whether they did or did not like a certain program. But what made the e-mails about "Texas Ranch" different, and especially interesting to me, is that they dealt with whether PBS had been true to the concept of the program — of people who "traveled back in time, daring to live as the early cowboys and ranchers did." There is no question that they seemed to live that way. But there is a question of whether they acted that way and spoke that way; whether the Cookes had the true grit of 1867 ranchers and whether the self-descriptions by Mrs. Cooke, Ms. Finkelstein as "21st Century women" was appropriate in a program of this sort.

What follows is a rather large sampling of the letters (some of them abbreviated, and some written after specific episodes). At the end of the letters is a response from William R. Grant, a director of Thirteen/WNET in New York who has been the executive in charge of all of these programs.

For Openers, Here's My Take

One more thing. I have to say that I found the series fascinating and watched the whole thing as it aired — and this was before I knew that people would be writing to me about it. Maybe it's because I grew up in the Bronx, and Texas ranching was not something we knew much about. But I was glued to this program. It was very slow at times, and unconventional. But I found it educational and the conflicts and personal relationships under very tough conditions were very raw, real and compelling.

On the other hand, I find myself in agreement with many of the points raised by the critics who wrote, especially those troubled by the assertions of Mrs. Cooke and Ms. Finkelstein about being "21st century women" and all that implied. There is no doubt that the roles they played then would not be played now. But it did serve as a distraction to the concept of the production, at least as I understood it as a viewer, and it did turn it, at times, into a platform for contemporary advocacy, which I felt was misplaced and annoying. You could argue about whether Mr. Cooke had what it took for those times. But the comments of the women on those few occasions, in my opinion, lifted the project, and whatever sense of reality it had reached, out of focus and it took a while to get back into it.

I should point out that there was a narrator throughout who pointed out many things that would not have been historically accurate. And there was an assessment in the final segment by independent experts about how the Cookes did that seemed to verify many of the points raised by some of the letter writers.

Here Are Several of the Letters:

My wife and I were interested to watch your series "Texas Ranch House" but I must share some observations. While the concept is excellent the production itself is lacking. Did someone forget to tell the family that the "1867" concept wasn't just a suggestion but the cornerstone of the project? Mainly the fact that they seem to believe that current equality between the sexes was a given 150 years ago! What a farce. That Mr. Cooke never puts Mrs. Cooke "in her place" is simply not correct for the time and setting.

Greg Arter, Marion, OH

While I like the concept of the real life shows, I fail to understand why the individuals that want to do these types of shows can't leave their 21st century ideas at home and make it more accurate. This series now is only about the problems with the wife and husband against the hands. I'm sure the wife and mother had more to do than get involved in the handling of the ranch hands. Why isn't she seen washing the clothes, making soap, etc instead of getting her feelings hurt because she didn't get her opinion counted. I've watched all that you have had and this is always the problem; modern day ideas instead of living it the way it was. You can and should do better.

Maggie Garrison, Gladstone, MO

I have enjoyed watching Texas Ranch House but take exception to how several of the participants continually acted as if it were the 21st century rather than the 19th century. The individuals on this show who refused to accept the role women played in the 19th century created unnecessary conflicts, were historically inaccurate and tarnished the true purpose of the show — life for the small rancher in Texas in 1867.

Additionally, no ranch owner would have hung around the ranch house doing "honey dues" knowing the answer to effectively running the ranch would have been to have a better rapport with his ranch hands by spending more time out on the range with the cowhands, evaluating the land, the cattle, the feed supply (the grass) the work being done, the water supply. Unless Mr. Cooke's time out on the range was drastically edited out, he seems to have spent more time at home than out being a "real" rancher. An armchair rancher would never have survived in 1867 Texas nor would he survive today. Hands on is the only way to run a ranch. Mr. Cooke's reaction to the Comanches left me flabbergasted — I thought these folks were given a good run down on what Comanches of the 19th century were like.

I believe this program would have been more informative and a true look back in time had the participants taken their "roles" more seriously rather than their 21st century feminism. It took a great deal of intelligence, planning, skill, know-how and elbow grease to run a household in the 19th century. To infer that only by being a "co-boss" can one prove they "didn't park their brain at the door" is an insult to all of our female ancestors who lived, worked and raised families in the 19th century — whether they were farm wives, rancher's wives or trolley conductor wives. And, oh, yes, I am a female and a genealogist. All in all I have enjoyed the show — but believe there has to be a better way to screen prospective individuals for these "peeks" back in time. Mrs. Cooke and Maura did a great disservice to our female ancestors with their constant interference, sniveling and whining. They came off as shrews.

Phoenix, AZ

The new series "Ranch House" has given me great pleasure seeing the trials and tribulations of life as it used to be. All of the return to the frontier programs have been very interesting. But one thing about "Ranch House" that has bothered me is the underlying feminism that is present along with the mention of being 21st Century women. This was supposed to be returning to life as it was, not how we wanted to make it. At one point in tonight's (May 3rd) presentation, I was so angered by it that I actually turned the program off. I have not decided if I will return. I was not watching it to hear someone's political statement or beliefs.

John Gonia, Western Springs, IL

Hey, It's 1867. Remember?

I have watched nearly every "period-reality" show that you have produced. Why is it that at the beginning all the women talk about how they want to experience everything, they want their experience to be as realistic as possible, and a few days into it they are ranting and raving about how "they can't be treated like that and how dare they!" For example, on tonight's episode of Texas Ranch House, Mrs. Cooke is insistent that she be present for all meetings and decisions. Then when that doesn't work out, she is confused and angry. I can't tell you how many times I yelled at the television, "Because it's 1867!!!!!!!!"

Are your cast members told at the beginning that they are to try to be period correct?

Bronwen Griffith, Kewanee, IL

Just wanted to say that I always look forward to your shows when you send a group back in time. I am now watching "Texas Ranch House" and this is the absolute worst. Mr Cook is too lazy to ride for cattle. The family eats pizza. Now Maura is going to be a ranch hand. I think this show can't compare to any of the previous shows when the cast stuck to what was admissible in their era. Oh, and one more thing . . . Mr. Cook can't do anything unless Mrs. Cook tells him. I doubt very seriously if that was the way it was "back in the day." Please do better next time.

Regina Hopley, Colorado Springs, CT

If I hear one of the Cooke ladies say that they're from the 21st century and they will be treated accordingly, I might just have to scream. Where do these folks come from? Do they have no idea of what they're getting into? Were I to participate I'd be interested in trying to make my experience as authentic as possible because it would be a one in a lifetime experience, warts and all. In my opinion the Cooke family just don't have the "true grit" to have made it in the real time period they're playing at. I did however enjoy to Comanche's in the "Lords of the Plains" episode. That made the whole night worth bearing the constant complaining, bickering, whining and henpecking that has gone on pretty much the whole time. Thanks for listening.

Beth Long, Toccoa, GA

We have usually enjoyed the historical "re-enactment" programs that PBS has aired, only being slightly perturbed by 21st century attitudes distorting them. However, The Texas Ranch House has been so overwhelmed by the female 21st century liberation that it is impossible to get a picture of what life was like in 1867 for women, or ranchers in general. The producers of these shows need to make it a priority that people chosen for these shows will not allow their own attitudes to control their historical actions so that viewers are able to see what life would have really been like.

We are living on a Nebraska homestead that was homesteaded at the turn of the 20th century. Gender roles did make a big difference then. Sure things would have been a lot different if the homesteading was happening now, but it didn't. Families of homesteading families are proud of the roles of both genders and are not ashamed in the least for either role. Because Mrs. Cooke and Maura are so concerned about their own roles in this project, they are destroying the accuracy of the project. If they tried to fit the gender roles of the times, they would find that there were many ways they could have actually made themselves indispensable and respected on the ranch. Their behavior makes this show one that I am not going to bother recording and using to teach children about the historical growth of our nation.

Bayard, NE

Spellbinding, Mesmerizing, but Lacking

I have sat spellbound by the series "Texas Ranch House." The entire series was mesmerizing as I watched the interactions between the family and the ranch hands. I feel the final evaluation about the future of the ranch was right on. Mr. Cooke definitely failed to realize the seriousness of losing his entire crew. Mrs. Cooke was so busy worrying about her "position" and standing on her principals that she jeopardized the ranch — I feel the crew was right about her being behind the indecisions of Mr. Cooke. After it was all over and she read the evaluations at the kitchen table she still didn't recognize that she was the source of the friction between the ranch hands and the family. At pay time, Mr. Cooke was so intent on showing a profit that he could not reach a compromise with his hands who wanted to buy a horse from him. In other words he did not recognize the job these men did for him and how much he needed them. The family housekeeping and "pitch in and help" was sorely lacking. They lived with the flies rather than do something about it. A garden was very important to families for food and it should have been attended and the food shared with the hands. Also, just because the women felt it was "men's work" as a woman in those days (or these for that matter) I certainly would have cleaned up those dishes and removed the manure from the front door. The girls even mentioned the smell caused partly by the rotting food and did nothing about it. Mr. Cooke fired his cook for unsanitary conditions and the family did nothing about these conditions themselves. I think this was one of the best, if not the best, series I have ever seen on PBS. Thank you.

June Fournier, Melbourne, AR

I was really excited when I read that PBS was airing Texas Ranch House. Some of my ancestors settled in Texas during the late 1800's so I was very interested in watching the show. I've viewed almost 6 of the Ranch House episodes, but left the room before the 6th show was finished as I was so fed up with the participants.

I watch PBS mainly to broaden my understanding of the world, to be entertained by top performers, and to enjoy British comedy. Much to my disappointment, this show hasn't been satisfying but has caused me to feel aggravated and stressed.

My first complaint is that Mrs. Cook is a manipulator who cloaks her selfish ego and desires in the guise of Feminism. This does a great disservice to all women. She's also a bully, trying to force her will on those around her. If folks won't perform to her liking, she claims they're chauvinists. Mr. Cook claims to have vast business experience, but I wonder how his employers view his performance? Mr. Cook seems to only consult his wife when making decisions as to the cattle ranching part of the endeavor. He never once asked how things are typically done or talked through problems and solutions with the top hand (who actually has experience). Why would a business owner make personnel decisions without consulting the manager of the area which will be affected. Baffling.

I'll watch a "back in time" show again, only when you portray the life in a way that demonstrates participants really trying to make a go of it. It's one thing for participants to voice their frustration of having to conform to another lifestyle, but it's not entertaining to watch folks act like small children.

Edgewater, MD

Your mock history shows, like Texas Ranch Home, and others you've shown in the past, have so much potential. But that potential is completely lost when you allow the participants to simply act in their 21st century way. The man-haters of this current show, and the fake passivity of the Comanche, demonstrate political correctness, historical inaccuracy, and make for a fake show that we can't abandon ourselves to. The potential is there. Unfortunately, it's blinded by your political proselytizing.

Minneapolis, MN

It's those Liberals, Again

It is a shame that PBS had to politicize The Texas Ranch House. Whoever selected the Cooke family as owners made the program about political correctness rather than how pioneer life actually was. Realism has been sacrificed for the liberal left. What a loss.

Bob Murphy, Dallas, TX

In the past I have enjoyed the programs which send 21st century people back in time to experience the challenges of living in a different age. However, the last program "1867 Texas Ranch" was both disappointing and disturbing.

I think the participants' preparation and support was inadequate. Neither groups were helped to resolve their difficulties. The assessment did not hold the ranch hands accountable enough. For the most part they were a group of immature, disrespectful and self-centered young men. (The only exceptions were Maura and Sean. They were the bright spots in the show.) The family was insular and unprepared for the rigors. They ignored the customs of the times and their working knowledge of how disease is spread was frightening.

But the thing that bothered me the most was the lack of compassion the separate groups had for each other. It created such an atmosphere of "them and us" one could see the project was doomed from the start. My point . . . if PBS continues to do these types of dramas, they need to work harder to screen, educate and support the participants to help them be successful. I was very disappointed in the outcome. There was no closure and no resolution. I think the family was especially ill treated and humiliated in front of the camera.

Ester, AK

My family viewed the Texas Ranch House program this past week and were disappointed. We were disappointed not in the program or its content but in the people selected to represent and portray an 1867 family. The disappointment is directed toward the Cooke family and their "maid of all work." In our opinion, the women did not portray the women of 1867. They were controlling, disrespectful, and rude to the men on the ranch. We felt that Mr. Cooke could have done a much better job of managing his ranch if his wife had stayed out of any decision making or at least consulted with him in private. She very openly forced him to change every decision he made and was heavily involved in areas of the business that would have been off-limits to the 1867 wife. His daughters and "maid of all work" did very little to add to the success of the ranch and most especially during the cattle drive they were very lazy. Mrs. Cooke was very rude to the ranch hands and didn't create a harmonious atmosphere among the owners and workers. The end displayed the very worst behavior of all. We feel that the workers were cheated out of their wages just so Mr. Cooke could appear to be successful. These actions appear to have been directly influenced, encouraged, and perhaps insisted upon by his wife.

Fairfield, OH

My husband and I watched Ranch House this past week and we were very disappointed. I thought that the point was to show us what it was like in 1867 and Ms. Cooke and Maura just couldn't understand that. I think that they did a very poor job and they were not true to the time that they were suppose to be in. I did appreciate the commentator each time he stated that was not how it was done in 1867.

Houston, TX

I watched Texas Ranch House and enjoyed the history about Texas in 1867 but I wish that the Cooke family had left their 2006 whining behind and really gotten into the guts and grit of their roles. They apparently know nothing about western history. They are a spoiled lot. I applaud the cowboys' rebellion.

Marge Pedtke, St. Charles, MO

The Evaluation Upheld the Integrity

Concerning the presentation of "Texas Ranch House": I very much like the series whereby people go back in time to experience life in a certain historical era. "Texas Ranch House" was the most troubling. The Cooke family bred discontentment. I think they turned out to be a VERY poor choice for the series. It actually kept taking me out the 1867 experience because I would become so irritated at the entire Cooke family. I was very satisfied to see such a scathing review of their efforts. It really couldn't have been any other way if the integrity of the series is to be upheld. That said, I do love the idea of the series and I hope they keep coming.

L. Whalen, Honolulu, HI

I just finished watching Texas Ranch House. I always enjoy watching these series of programs and never miss a day if I can help it because I enjoy knowing what it was like to live 100 or more years ago. My grandmother came west in a covered wagon and lived in a sod hut when she was a teenager and I've always enjoyed imagining what it was like in those days.

However this was the first such program where I felt that the producers picked the wrong family to be the head of this ranch, and I felt that right from the beginning to the end of the show. Every day it was becoming more obvious that the Cook family were going to cause the demise of this ranch by their attitudes, their snobbery and their laziness — every one of the Cook family — and by their inexperience in managing a home, farm animals or a garden and even the financial dealings of a ranch and most of all being a manager of their hired hands.

I believe the producers should have found a manager with ranch experience who wanted to and was capable of working with his ranch hands — Mr. Cook was a joke as a ranch manager. I think the wife of the manager should have kept her place in the background and not continually poisoning her husband and her girls against the ranch hands. I think this whole family had a lousy work ethic and they would never have survived in such a situation in real life.

Mrs. Cook was the real power behind the throne and this totally destroyed the ranch. She should have had no say-so in any of it and behaved like a woman of the time and kept in the background and let her husband truly be the "man." Thus I felt the final tally re the failure of the ranch was accurately laid squarely at the feet of the Cook family. I have never felt so disappointed with any of your other shows so I think this may have tarnished the appeal of your future programs. I know tension is good to make a story interesting but I do think this program leaves a black mark on your collection because of the choice in ranch manager. I do appreciate your producing this series of programs, however.

Lori Eldridge, Spokane, WA

Somehow It Has a Familiar Ring

I just finished watching the four part series "Texas Ranch House." What a big disappointment! I thought that PBS would encourage the challenge of participants who were "into history," and wanted to test their mettle to see if they could live in the past that they believed in, and see if they could actually live it!

All I witnessed, especially by the "Cooke Family," was constant whining, and complaining that 1867 didn't compare with 2005, that they were used to living in. Mr. and Mrs. Cooke were terribly miscast.

The constant modern contemporary remarks such as: "I hear you," and other comments common to our huge corporations run by management who don't get involved in the inner workings of their companies, was terribly annoying and showed that Cooke was out of touch with his ranchhands.

Mrs. Cooke actually blamed the ranchhands for her and her husband's failure. Sounds like ENRON, don't it?!!!

Alan Stapleford, Merrimack, NH

I faithfully watched the Texas Ranch House programs. At the end of the 3rd show I was of the opinion that the girls were lazy and their attitude distracted from the program. Mrs. Cooke caused more problems then anyone. She did not act like an 1867 women. She had not taught her daughters to work. She led her husband around by the nose. He also was lazy also. A ranch owner would have worked harder to give instructions to Robbie to give the hands jobs to do around the ranch that need to be done everyday. I was frustrated with the Cooke family for being such a weak working family. They obviously did not know a thing about life in those times.

Charlene McCormack, Hideaway, TX

I loved all the other reality existence shows but the Texas Ranch House seems out of control. Some participants do not seem to want to stick to the integrity of the time. I am finding it hard to watch. How are the participants selected? Are they briefed on politically correct ideals of the times?

Sharon P., Houston, TX

I found it quite unusual for cowboys/ranch owners/visiting merchants to be unarmed. Era appropriate weapons should certainly be a part of any "authentic" depiction of western/Texas life during this era. Like it or not weapons for both protection and food, played a significant role during this era, good and bad. I doubt that any self respecting cowboy would ride the range without some sort of sidearm and rifle. Curious . . . why were the Indians armed? Guess where their weapons came from . . . I miss the logic here.

Oh, and one last thought . . . the Mrs. needs to pipe down!!! and my wife agrees . . . not era appropriate behavior at all. But maybe that's what you're going for.

Peter K., Ridgefield Park, NJ

Here's What PBS's William Grant Has to Say

TEXAS RANCH HOUSE is the sixth in a series of what we refer to as "experiential history." I have been executive in charge for all of these programs. The foundation idea of this strand is that the participants are not play-acting. This is not a scripted drama. These are modern people seeking to live with the technology, clothing, housing conditions and food of the time in which the series is set. We don't ask them to leave their knowledge of the 21st Century — or their language — behind. Indeed much of the drama comes from the rub between the modern person set down in, as in the case of TEXAS RANCH HOUSE, an 1867 place. Living conditions, food, gender issues, the relationship between servant and master are so different from today that the participants — and through them the audience — experience history in an entirely different way.

For my entire professional life the two overarching principles I have followed have been the quest for accuracy and for clarity. We stand entirely behind the historical accuracy of all of these programs. They are carefully vetted and the narration is precise in pointing out when what you are seeing varies from what would have been the case in the time period we are exploring. Therefore, it grieves me mightily that even a few viewers have so misunderstood the premise of the programs. This premise is something we have taken enormous pains to make clear. At the beginning of each hour of TEXAS RANCH HOUSE the narrator talks of 15 "modern people" faced with living as our forbearers did in 1867 Texas.

Your correspondents are correct on two points: we did not permit firearms on any of the series. This was a safety issue — who would have wanted a gun around during some of the heated exchanges we have seen in these series — and in observation of the laws of the states in which the series were filmed and the requirements of our insurance company. This variation from what would have been common practice in 1867 is something that was discussed in detail in the narration. And of course the encounter between the cowboys and the Comanches was fanciful. As we state in narration, the Comanches were known to be one of the fiercest of the Plains tribes. A real encounter between ranchers and Comanches would almost certainly have ended with one or more deaths. We had the choice as producers of either ignoring the Comanche part of the story or, as we did with colonists and Indians in COLONIAL HOUSE (2004), arrange a meeting between real Comanches and our participants as a means of exploring that relationship which was a very real part of 1867 Texas life.

PBS has many hours of history programming, most done in the conventional way — experts, historical footage and, where necessary, recreations. We make many of those programs ourselves here at WNET. But it is our experience with these six series that this approach has opened up history to a whole audience — including a great many children and young people — that does not watch the other history programming on PBS. Of that we are very proud.