Issues of race, class warfare and immigration are garnering a lot attention from the press and from the presidential candidates heading into this year’s election.
Those issues are also fodder for the storylines of several popular cable shows such as BBC America’s Copper, AMC’s Hell on Wheels and History’s record-setting miniseries Hatfields & McCoys.
Yet those shows aren’t taking their cues from today’s headlines, but rather from the Civil War era of the mid-1800s, in which the fierce battle between the Northern and Southern states nearly destroyed the U.S.
Network executives said viewers see parallels between the issues that permeated the war and those the country faces today.
“I think there’s something very compelling about the Civil War and the post-war era,” Joel Stillerman, AMC’s executive vice president of original programming, said. “That idea of a country divided is so incredibly compelling and so relevant today.”
The Civil War has been fertile ground for films on the big screen with such epics as Gone With the Wind, Glory and Amistad, as well as TV miniseries such as Roots and PBS’s Ken Burns-directed documentary The Civil War.
More recently, History generated 3.7 million viewers with its docu-movie Gettysburg last spring, chronicling the 150th anniversary of the war. History senior vice president of development and programming for History Dirk Hoogstra said viewers have always been fascinated by the Civil War, but have become even more enamored with its story lines in recent times as the country has become more partisan and issues of race and class that divided the country and led to the conflict are again at the forefront of American discussion.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future and rhetoric about the country, and looking at origins of America and the country is an interesting subject for the country,” Hoogstra said. “Viewers probably don’t know as much as they thought they did about the country’s history, so seeing what life was like then, [during] the development of the country, is interesting for people.”
Hatfields & McCoys, based on the famous family feud set in the post-Civil War South, captured the country’s fascination in a way that made TV history. The Emmy-nominated, three-part series averaged a cable miniseries-record 13.7 million viewers.
The backdrop of the Civil War has helped BBC America’s new drama Copper garner the network’s highest audience for a series debut. Copper, which focuses on several friends looking to make a life in post-Civil War New York, is averaging more than 1 million viewers since its Aug. 19 debut, according to Perry Simon, general manager, channels, BBC Worldwide America.
Simon said Copper creators Tom Fontana and Will Rokos have frequently commented on how Civil War-era issues — racism, class warfare, and immigration — resonate with contemporary audiences, thereby making the time period a great subject for a series to mine.
“We weren’t specifically approaching it because it was about the Civil War, but you’ll see in later episodes that the Civil War becomes much more of a story engine with regards to how it affects our characters,” Simon said. The network will continue to track the show’s ratings before determining whether to renew it for a second season, he said.
“The themes of the Civil War inform our lead characters, their history and going forward you’ll see how it informs the storytelling of the series as it affects even more characters.”
For AMC’s Hell on Wheels, the Western storyline of Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) working on the Transcontinental Railroad as he seeks to find the Northern soldiers who killed his family during the war has drawn viewers to the sophomore series.
Hell on Wheels is averaging 2.5 million viewers four weeks into its current run. The show’s first season averaged 2.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
“Hell on Wheels is inextricably linked to the Civil War — you have a protagonist who was a Confederate soldier mixed in with Union guys and free slaves, which makes for a very toxic mix,” Stillerman said. “I think it was potent story to begin with, but with the overlay of the war and how an entire community struggles to reconcile with postwar realities is a really potent story to launch from.”
HANDLE WITH CARE
While AMC has struck ratings gold with Hell on Wheels, the network isn’t planning to develop any other Civil War-themed shows in the near future.
BBC America’s Simon said that, as with any genre, networks have to be careful not to over saturate the market with Civil War-themed shows for fear that it will eventually turn off viewers.
“I would be concerned that if people go to the Civil War well too often, it will feel less fresh and compelling for audiences,” Simon said, adding that it’s unlikely BBC would do another series set in the U.S. Civil War period.
While History has several other unnamed Civil War-themed projects in development, Hoogstra also said the network will not “overinvest” in the genre.