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Enlisting Military in the Program Mix

Service members' lives offer networks fertile backdrop for drama series 12/04/2017 8:00 AM Eastern
Jeremy Sisto portrays Staff Sgt. Robert Miltenberger in Nat Geo's "The Long Road Home."

A brigade of military-focused scripted series has invaded TV screens, as cable networks look to offer action-packed, often heroism-themed content depicting the U.S. armed forces.

National Geographic Channel’s The Long Road Home, which premiered on Nov. 7, is cable’s latest entry in the military genre, joining sophomore shows Shooter (USA Network) and SIX (History).

Related > MCN Review: 'The Long Road Home'

Cable programmers aren’t the only distributors deploying shows in the genre. The broadcast networks have launched three freshman shows during the during the 2017-18 television season, including Valor (The CW), The Brave (NBC) and SEAL Team (CBS).

Even Netflix’s latest series from Marvel, Marvel’s The Punisher, is based on a former marine ensnared in a military conspiracy, according to the streaming service.

Related > Watch Netflix's Trailer for 'Marvel's The Punisher'

Enjoyed Success in Past
The shows are tapping into a void of programming in what’s historically been a successful genre of television, network executives said.

“Military-themed series have a long history of success,” said Barry Jossen, executive vice president of A+E Studios, which is producing the Navy SEAL-themed series SIX for History. “There are so many great stories to be told, filled with compelling characters and lots of aching emotion.”

Such shows also provide audiences with clear-cut heroes in a TV environment where characters often blur the lines between good and bad, executives said, reflecting the very real military conflicts covered in the news.

Related > MCN Review: History's 'SIX'

“There is a tremendous interest among the viewing audience right now to understand the military and the sacrifices that the families go through,” said Dale Ardizzone, chief operating officer for INSP, which airs the documentary series Brush of Honor about military portrait artist Phil Taylor. “All the things that are going on that have shown what a dangerous place the world can be at times combined with the social media efforts in making the lives of [military men and women] so personal have been the driving factors for the popularity of these shows.”

Nat Geo’s eight-part series The Long Road Home — based on the bestselling book by ABC News chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, chronicling the 2004 “Black Sunday” ambush of a U.S. Army platoon in Baghdad — is the network’s first foray into military programming drama. Nat Geo has produced many unscripted programs about war, the military and the valor of service members.

Related > Watch Nat Geo's 'The Long Road Home' Trailer

“It is a populist approach to storytelling, and it makes sense to tell stories that celebrate the American military, which is a really a timeless idea,” Carolyn Bernstein, National Geographic executive vice president and head of global scripted development and production, said.

Though The Long Road Home is a scripted series, its story is based in fact and depicts the lives of both the soldiers deployed in Iraq and their family members at home, Bernstein said. “For us, this was a story that deserved to be told in a complete and dramatic fashion that featured relatable and universal humanistic values,” she said.

History will return combat drama SIX for a second season in 2018. The show allows the network to tell a military story through the eyes of members of a Navy SEAL Team, affording viewers a more humanistic viewpoint of those who protect and serve their country than traditional documentary series can provide.

SIX feels real, very real,” Jossen said. “It is a perfect blend of mission stories, providing insight into the brotherhood of SEAL Team members and home life with the varied conflicts of family, commitment and life that goes on while these heroes are away. The high-stakes drama of SIX elevates viewer emotion, who find relatable connections to their own lives.”

The action and scenarios depicted in shows such as SIX are very similar to the current conflicts facing the U.S. armed forces around the world, Jossen added. For instance, there are multiple depictions of missions in Africa on the show that preceded the Oct. 4 ambush of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers in Niger.

SIX is telling stories that are timely and topical as anything else on TV or in the movies,” he added.

Not a Political Thing
Although it’s difficult not to equate the rise of the genre with the general populist and pro-military themes espoused by President Donald Trump, Nat Geo’s Bernstein said such shows can entertain and build on the positive values of the military without being overtly political.

“It’s really about these people who have stories of their own to tell that have nothing to do with politics,” she said. “We’re less focused on whether it’s the perfect timing [for military shows]. From our perspective, this kind of approach to storytelling with a military subject feels like its always the right time to tell this story.”

Added INSP’s Ardizzone: “If we look at it really close, the support for the military in these shows is really apolitical. In a time when there’s a lot of divisiveness in the country, when you look at the military and celebrate the sacrifices and the challenges that the people who serve go through, it really is bipartisan, compelling entertainment.”

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