‘Hatfields & McCoys’ Shoots Down Ratings Record


A one-two-three punch of quality content,
strong promotion and impeccable timing helped History’s
miniseries Hatfields & McCoys make ratings history.

The Kevin Costner-
helmed project,
passed on by several
cable networks
through the years,
finished its threenight
run last week
as the most-watched
entertainment series
ever on an ad-supported
cable network.

“It’s very difficult
to get it right on every
single element and, at
the end of the day, there
is a certain perfect storm of luck/mojo that has to kick in as
well,” Nancy Dubuc, president and general manager for History
and Lifetime Networks, said. “That happened here.”

The ratings numbers were impressive: Part three last
Wednesday (May 30) was the most-watched of the three
nights, averaging 14.3 million viewers, according to Nielsen
data from History. The first night, Memorial Day (May 28),
drew 13.9 million viewers. Some 13.1 million tuned in for episode

“We certainly doubled down on this project and we certainly
expected it to perform well,” Dubuc said. “I would be
arrogant to say we thought it would break cable records, but
we were expecting a strong performance and we’re thrilled
that it made history.”

While the telecasts now hold the top three spots among all
ad-supported cable shows, it should be noted that the audience
of 14.3 million for part three of Hatfields & McCoys has
been surpassed 30 times by ESPN’s Monday Night Football, as
well as by four ESPN telecasts of college-football bowl games.
Also topping the show: The 1993 episode of CNN’s Larry King
, in which Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot debated
the North American Free Trade Agreement, with 16.8 million
viewers; and High School Musical 2, Disney Channel’s
commercial-free telefilm, which drew 17.2
million viewers for its Aug. 17, 2007, debut before
tacking on another 1.4 million on a live-plus-seven-
day basis.

Nevertheless the ratings performance is remarkable
for a miniseries that was passed up by such
networks as HBO, Showtime and TNT, executive
producer Leslie Greif told the New York Post.

Dubuc said the network rewrote much of the
script that was
circulated to other
networks and
expanded the
project from four to
six hours. “The topic had a
pre-sold element to it — everyone
knows the phrase
‘Hatfields & McCoys’ and
it’s part of our pop-culture
vernacular — but no one
really knew the true story,
and that’s always been a
strong combination for us
at History, no matter what
we do.”

The project fit perfectly
with History’s brand of bringing historic stories to life in an
entertaining manner, Gary Lico, CEO of CableU, an online
service that analyzes cable-network performance and programming,

“It hits the target as to what History is all about — tell us
something that we think we know, but it turns out we don’t,”
he said. “That’s History’s mantra.”

While Hatfields & McCoys wasn’t History’s most-marketed
series ever, Dubuc said the show’s high-profile cast, including
Costner, Bill Paxton and Tom Berenger, drew additional notice
from such media outlets as Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.

“I think that contributed to helping it make it feel like an
event, even though the marketing was comparable to what
we do for big events twice a year,” Dubuc said.

History’s timing — scheduling the series during Memorial
Day week — added to its viewer appeal, TV historian Tim
Brooks said. Aside from NBA playoff games, Hatfields & McCoys faced little competition from original cable or broadcast

In fact, sister network A&E moved the premiere of its own
miniseries, Coma, from
its original Memorial
Day weekend slot so
as not to compete with
Hatfields & McCoys.

“It was the first major
event scheduled for
the summer, and if you
get in there early with
a decent product, you
will get a big number,”
Brooks said. “It was a
good show, but the timing
was impeccable.”

While Hatfields &
has seemingly
breathed new life into
the miniseries genre, Lico doesn’t believe it will signal “the
return of major miniseries, no more than it will be a return
to major Westerns.”

“A lot will depend on the back-end value of miniseries
and its repeat value,” Lico said.