Attention cable viewers: Forget what you learned in school. U.S. History class is now in session, through a number of scripted series, miniseries and movies.
From the Revolutionary War to the building of the transcontinental railroad to the Salem witch trials, cable networks are weaving American historical characters and events into clever writing and storylines to draw in viewers who may have nodded off to the U.S. history lessons taught in school.
“If a show like (AMC’s) Turn was around when I was in high school, I would have been a lot more interested in the American Revolution than hearing it from my American history teacher,” Joel Stillerman, executive vice president of production and digital content for AMC, said.
Networks are learning over the past few years that viewers may actually have an appetite for such history lessons if told in a compelling way on screen:
• WGN America’s April 20 premiere of drama series Salem, which chronicles the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts during the 1600s, drew 1.5 million viewers — the network’s mostwatched telecast in seven years.
• Lifetime’s two-part miniseries Bonnie & Clyde drew nearly 10 million combined viewers for its Dec. 8, 2013, premiere simulcast across Lifetime, A&E and History. The drama about the bank-robbing duo of the 1920s drew the third-biggest opening for a miniseries in cable since 2006.
• National Geographic Channel’s Nov. 10, 2013, movie Killing Kennedy and its Feb. 17 2013 telefilm Killing Lincoln are the channel’s most-watched shows ever, both having generated 3.4 million viewers.
• History’s 2012 effort Hatfields & McCoys remains the most watched miniseries in cable history, averaging more than 13 million viewers over its six episodes.
With more intimate story lines and more complex characters, cable-network programmers said the historical genre is drawing interest from both history buffs wanting to learn more about iconic figures and watershed moments in American history, as well as from a younger generation of viewers curious about a more indepth look at the history of the country.
“When you actually look at these iconic figures for real, they all have such interesting stories,” Stephen David, producer of History’s upcoming American revolution- based drama series Sons of Liberty, said. “Complex characters like George Washington or Paul Revere — who you thought you knew growing up, but then find out what they were really like — are fascinating.”
Also, the distinct recognition that history often repeats itself, given today’s social and political divisions in the country — as well as the numerous military conflicts throughout the world — have made these period genre shows popular with viewers.
“When the future is uncertain it’s a good moment to look to the past,” Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president and general manager of History and H2, said. “When the nation is as divided as it is right now, it’s another opportunity to look back at how this country was formed — to find out whether it really happened the way we were taught and what are we really built on, what kind of beliefs should we really follow. It sparks a lot of that curiosity.”
Added AMC’s Stillerman: “It’s a little easier to look at the concept of a divided nation through the lens of the construction of the transcontinental railroad (the premise of AMC’s Hell on Wheels) than maybe it is to deal with why we’re divided now on some levels. Turn on some level is a fantastic example of a way to go back and contemporize revolution, which is front-page news these days.”
American historical projects are not just enjoying success on cable. On the big screen, a number of genrethemed movies have garnered both box-office success and critical acclaim. Last year’s 12 Years a Slave, a true story about a free African-American man who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery, won three Academy Awards this year, including best picture.
A year ago Lincoln, which chronicled the final four months of President Lincoln’s life, drew 12 Academy Award nominations, including best picture and an Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of the 16th president.
Up until recently, though, the big screen was the only place to view scripted American historical pieces, as both broadcast and cable networks mostly avoided period pieces for fear viewers would not tune in, according to WGN president Matt Cherniss.
“For a long time, there were certain unwritten rules, and one of them was that period shows don’t work on television, and that was something a lot of people seem to abide by,” Cherniss said. Along with Salem, WGN will also offer anther genre series this July dubbed Manhattan, a drama series about the development of the atomic bomb.
“I think the success of the genre over the past few years has broken through that imaginary barrier and you’re seeing a lot of networks look at the genre.”
Indeed, the 2012 success of History’s Hatfields & McCoys opened a lot of network executives’ eyes regarding the viability of historical series. The six-hour series, which starred Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton as members on opposite sides of the legendary 19th-century family feud, surprised the industry with its enormous rating success as the most watched mini-series in cable history.
History’s Hoogstra said the series drew in viewers who had heard about the famous Hatfields-McCoys feud along the West Virginia-Kentucky border but wanted to learn more about how it started — and if it actually ended.
“We can use these projects to ignite interest in the subject of history,” he said. “I love when people watch our shows and they start Googling the subject. I think it ignites this real interest in history and can potentially bring it to a new generation.”
Stephen David — who is also producing The World Wars documentary for History, set to air on Memorial Day weekend — said that historical shows are also attracting younger 18-to-34-year-old viewers who are interested in the back story of some of the historical figures and events they’re currently studying in school.
“What you get in school is a lot of facts thrown at you without a lot of context around it,” David said. “But when you’re involved in a character and then something is thrown out you that involves the character’s stake in the story, it means a lot more.”
Added Hoogstra: “My real goal is to get all viewers, but I love to get younger viewers engaged in these kinds of things. I think really young people don’t think history applies to them, so if you can engage them in an entertaining way, then they might start to think of the subject differently and start to realize that these can be more fascinating and interesting than anything you can make up.”
Indeed, Cherniss said historical pieces can provide writers and producers with a topic that’s familiar to viewers, but can allow for writers to take some creative license with the storylines.
“To a certain extent, time buys you the ability to play with reality and blur the line between fiction and reality,” he said, adding that the character names from Salem represent real-life people from that time, but the series also showcases the magical powers that people of the era believed the so-called witches possessed.
“Salem was a time and place that I had never seen on television — it was a world that people had heard about but never experienced,” he said.
AMC’s Stillerman added, though, that historicallybased shows cannot diverge too far from the facts, otherwise passionate historical buffs will discredit the show and tune out.
“We’re not making these shows primarily for historians, but I personally would not want somebody who’s familiar with the period to say that we got it wrong,” Stillerman said. “There’s a slightly higher burden on us if we’re dealing with characters that are nonfiction to stick with the script, so to speak, but if you’re going back to 1776, you can take a little license.
“The bigger bar for any show is authenticity to the period,” he added. “You want people to think that you took the period seriously and that you never want to make a joke about it and that you did your homework.”
In doing their “homework,” network executives say that they’ve learned more about American history than they ever did in class. Hoogstra said in researching Texas Rising, a new drama series premiering later this year about the settling of Texas and the rise of the legendary law outfit the Texas Rangers, he learned more about the rampage of Mexican dictator President Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna during the 1800s Texas Revolution.
“After the Alamo, Santa Anna marched his troops and called for the surrender of the next fort. When they came out he killed everyone — how did I not get that piece of the story?” Hoogstra said. “The more I learned the more I realize that I don’t know anything about this story. We’ve got a baseball team [named after the Texas Rangers] and all of these things in popular culture, but most people know very little about what happened there.”
Added WGN’s Cherniss: “There’s a lot of interest [in the genre] because these are worlds that you’ve heard of, but in general they are worlds where you don’t know the entire story. That’s why they are such fertile places to tell those stories.”