Channeling Biographies

Why Biopics Are Drawings Historically High Audiences

The hottest cable-TV genre at the moment is one that can be found in a quiet section of the public library: biography.

National Geographic Channel’s Nov. 10 original movie premiere Killing Kennedy — the latest in a string of biographical cable movies and miniseries to capture audience attention — drew a network record 3.4 million viewers. And VH1’s CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story drew 4.5 million viewers for its Oct. 21 premiere, the biggest audience for a non-kids-targeted original cable movie this year.

Nearly half of the 10 most-watched movies this year have been profiles of celebrities or historical figures that had been mostly confined to grade-school textbooks or YouTube clips. And with other major projects already lined up — including the Dec. 8 premiere of Lifetime’s Bonnie & Clyde, as well as National Geographic Channel’s Killing Jesus, Lifetime’s The Gabby Douglas Story and History’s Houdini, all set for next year — cable will continue to feed viewers’ appetites for biography.

The purveyors of today’s successful biopics say the movies satisfy viewers’ curiosity about the past by presenting history in a contemporary fashion that often touches upon the issues and situations that society faces today.

“We live in a very uncertain time, but when you go back and look at stories of historical figures, there is a refreshing sense and reminder of a simpler time when heroes were heroes and bad guys were bad guys,” National Geographic Channels president Howard Owens said. “From an entertainment perspective, it’s good for the audience to latch onto … it’s not complicated and it allows you to go back and think about times when things were simpler.”

Rob Lowe, the film star and ’80s teenage heartthrob who plays the title role in Killing Kennedy, told Multichannel News the appeal stems from the fact that the stories are true. “[Biopics] allow us to connect with our past,” Lowe said. “You don’t make this stuff up.”

While biographical films have been in the programming mix since the advent of original cable programming, the genre over the past 18 months has experienced major ratings gains — and snared major TV-industry awards — as more cable networks look to history and fame as fodder for stories.

HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, which depicted the life of flamboyant pianist Liberace, won three Primetime Emmy Awards this past September, the most of any cable or broadcast program. And History’s 2012 Hatfields & McCoys set a cable viewership record for a miniseries, averaging more than 12 million viewers for its threeday run that May.

Interest in the milestone anniversaries of several historic events has, in part, spurred the recent interest in biographical projects. Lifetime’s Betty & Coretta, which profiled the lives of civil-rights leaders Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, drew 2.2 million viewers in the wake of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Killing Kennedy’s record ratings grab happened more than week before the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

“When you look at the entire landscape of these films. I think the audience is craving for a deeper story telling experience,” VH1 president Tom Calderone said. CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story drew VH1’s biggest audience this year.

“Whether it’s Killing Kennedy or TLC, they are part of some very watershed and lightning-rod moments, whether it’s historical or comfort programming in which the subject aligns with periods in people’s lives,” Calderone added.

The biopics are also introducing iconic figures to a new generation of viewers who may know the names, but not the stories behind them, History executive vice president and general manager Dirk Hoogstra said.

“Something like Hatfields & McCoys has household recognition, but nobody knows why — it’s something that you grew up with and you heard about in Bugs Bunny cartoons, but nobody knew about the characters,” he said. “We were able to identify something that was big and iconic, but nobody knew the real story, and audiences really wanted to know the real story.”

Movies such as Killing Kennedy, which takes a unique look at the JFK assassination by following both the president and his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, in the days leading up to the shooting, provides an entertaining vehicle for learning a little history, Owens said.

“If you’re a 30-year-old kid who wants to learn about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK and about JFK the man, you are hearing this in a way that’s digestible and you can learn a lot from it,” he said. “We think it taps into the audience that really loves Kennedy, and, on another level, it’s appealing because it focuses on the facts and also has a great cast.”

Indeed, high-powered talent has been another audience draw for the recent mix of biographical original movies and miniseries. From Academy Award winners Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra), Kevin Costner (Hatfields & McCoys) and Angela Bassett (Betty & Coretta), to Lindsay Lohan (Liz & Dick) and Grammy-nominated singer Jewel (Lifetime’s Ring of Fire), celebrities say playing another famous personality is as rewarding as it is challenging.

“I’ve always felt a connection to [Kennedy], maybe because I was born a few months after he died and was sort of born into the sadness, the sort of loss that the country felt,” Lowe said of his portrayal of John F. Kennedy. “I had certain benchmarks I had to meet, since people know how he spoke, they know he dressed a certain way or wore his hair in a certain way. But I could have gotten all of that right and still been awful if I was trying to portray a hero and not a man.”

Emile Hirsch, who plays Clyde Barrow in Bonnie & Clyde, added that he was drawn to the myth of the 1930s bank robber.

“I wanted to learn as much as I could about Clyde to make my interpretation of him feel authentic to people who know the history,” he said. “I didn’t want to sugarcoat him or Hollywood him up — I was much more interested in the tragic, tormented soul that he was who was alternately crazy, controlling, sociopathic, but above all hopelessly in love with Bonnie Parker.”

Actors are drawn to the idea of holding their performance up against an extraordinary real-life person, Lifetime executive vice president and general manager Rob Sharenow said, and that benefits both actor and project. “It really helps define your legacy as a performer if you really nail it,” he said.

Bonnie & Clyde will air Dec. 8, simulcast on sister services A&E and History.

Female-targeted Lifetime in particular has had success with mining the genre. With Betty & Coretta, Anna Nicole and Ring of Fire — based on the life of country music star June Carter Cash — the network had three of this year’s top 25 most-watched movies. Theatrical studios have all but abandoned the genre, he added, leaving audiences looking for such movies on the small screen.

“Viewers love to hear true stories and they like stories of extraordinary people, but the movie studios are focusing on big comic-book franchises and genre comedies,” he said. “A lot of the movies that we’re doing, like Bonnie & Clyde and House of Versace, have large audiences that aren’t being served by the theatrical world.”

Biographical movies don’t need a history-class flavor to be successful, as evidenced by VH1’s CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, about the lives of the 1990s R&B trio. While contemporary celebrities have big appeal to younger viewers, VH1’s Calderone said it can be difficult to make a film that maintains the mystique of a celebrity in the Internet era.

“You have to make sure you’re dealing with topics that weren’t necessarily exploited in the tabloids or in a video form; you don’t want your audience saying ‘I’ve seen this before,’ ” he said, adding that VH1 is planning as many as five biopics over the next year, although he would not disclose specifics.

Actress Drew Sidora, who played TLC’s Tionne “TBoz” Watkins in CrazySexyCool, added that succesful biopics both entertain today’s audiences and are relevant to younger viewers looking to learn more about their heroes or idols.

“These bio-based films are really time pieces and it gives people a snapshot of history — for some, it is a new story and for others, they are revisiting a story from their era,” she said.


Biographical films are gaining traction among basic-cable viewers, with more history-based projects on the way.