Cable Programmers Take History Lessons

Cable Programmers Take History Lessons

The fireworks and celebrations may be over for America’s 237th birthday party, but it seems that cable viewers can’t get enough of commemorating other historic events and characters on their big-screen TVs.

The history genre is in the midst of a television ratings renaissance as the fascinating stories and lessons of past triumphs and tragedies are capturing the imagination of a public that’s fatigued by low-brow reality TV content and the drumbeat of troubling economic and political news.

Scripted period shows like PBS’s Emmy Award-winning Downton Abbey, HBO’s prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, AMC’s 1960s-themed Mad Men and History’s The Vikings are all the rage on TV, as viewers embrace the unique clothing, behaviors, cultures and codes of honor observed and practiced generations ago.

Viewers are rewarding networks that take the risk of bringing back the past in an entertaining and informative manner. History’s 2012 Hatfields & McCoys was the most watched miniseries in cable history, while its 2013 five-parter The Bible averaged more than 10 million viewers.

Cable is even giving historical figures a new look. As profiled in this week’s cover story, networks like Starz and upstart Pivot are re-imagining the lives of such prominent figures as Leonardo da Vinci and Sir William Shakespeare in series that aim to provide greater perspective on and foster interest in their enormous contributions to history.

While academics may scoff at Starz’s portrayal of da Vinci as a hip, socially adept genius, at the very least it may pique the interest of young and older viewers enough to Google his name alongside the Kardashians and other TV royalty.

Historical fare provides good entertainment for viewers, but its greatest appeal may reside in its ability to offer a window for gazing into the past to discover who we are today and where we’re headed in an otherwise uncertain future.