Epic drama for factual channels

The_Bible_Jesus+disciplesThe last decade saw the big factual channels move from documentary led schedules to grids full of factual entertainment and observational docs. History, by commissioning mega-hit miniseries Hatfields and McCoys, has started the next evolution of factual channels and drama is a new battleground among the big networks, reports Stewart Clarke

It’s unlikely that the programming bigwigs at History knew when they commissioned Hatfields & McCoys that it would make the cable network the buzziest and most talked about in the TV world. But last year’s three-part miniseries, starring Kevin Costner and following two feuding families in 19th century Kentucky, averaged 14 million viewers, making it the most watched (non-sports) cable broadcast ever.

It has paved the way for the other factual nets to greenlight their own drama series and the factual and drama production communities have been on high alert since, scoping out opportunities to pitch the next big drama project to History, Discovery, National Geographic and their counterparts.

Speaking to TBI after Hatfields, but ahead of the launch of The Bible and Vikings, A+E Networks president, entertainment and media, Nancy Dubuc, described her approach to reinvigorating programming at the cable net and how scripted fits in: “I love history and have respect for it, but it needs to be more than just a timeline and more about emotion — and that applies to the non-fiction business in general.” Talking about the introduction of drama, she added: “You have to figure out a way to be first because we know that first always wins.”

History is well aware it started a trend and one that shows no signs of abating.

“It would have been nice if we would have owned that space for a little longer, it’s amazing how fast the competition has rallied,” says Dirk Hoogstra, who off the back of working across Hatfields was promoted from senior VP to executive VP, development and programming, for the History and H2 channels.


That competition is coming in the form of Discovery, which has ordered Gold Rush series Klondike, and National Geographic, which registered a hit with Killing Lincoln. History has held its first-mover advantage by getting heavily scripted show The Bible and Vikings out and transmits them back-to-back on Sunday nights in a three-hour block.
Drama is clearly the new battleground among the big-hitting factual channels.

“Now American factual channels are doing scripted and it has become a certain trend,” says Hamish Mykura, executive VP and head of international content for National Geographic Channels International. “Killing Lincoln has recorded the US channel’s highest ever ratings and you have to take note of that. It shows that with the right project in the right moment and with the right marketing, scripted can go to the very top.”

John Smithson knows about making hit features and TV movies based on real-life stories having produced Touching the Void and The Beckoning Silence, both based on the books by mountaineer and novelist Joe Simpson. He now runs UK indie Arrow Media. The seasoned producer is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of making scripted programming for factual channels.

“There are opportunities to do pieces of real scale and ambition, but they are limited because lots and lots of people are chasing them including film companies, a lot of people out of LA as well as scripted producers,” he says.

One company getting more than its fair share of scripted business from the factual channels is Scott Free, movie producer Ridley Scott’s increasingly-active TV production firm. It made Nat Geo’s Killing Lincoln and is now producing Klondike for Discovery.

“Ridley Scott is a virtuoso storyteller and we thought this would be the perfect marriage,” says Dolores Gavin, Discovery Channel’s executive VP of development & production and executive producer of Klondike.

“In the scripted landscape you can’t jump in, in a small way and this was our way of jumping in, in a big way. We said to Scott Free we would love to engage the audience in a new way. They said ‘what are you thinking?’ and when we said ‘Gold Rush’ they came back with the book [Charlotte Gray’s Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich]. Once we knew what we wanted to do we commissioned a script and then a second script and then we had to ask are we in or are we out? [Senior executive VP, corporate marketing and affairs] David Leavy and [president and CEO] David Zaslav saw it and said they believed in it.”

The resulting six-parter is in production and Chris Cooper and Tim Roth are among the stars of the ensemble project, which tells the intertwining story of a group of individuals trying to strike it rich in the Klondike region during the 1890s Gold Rush.

“There are six different characters, each one with a different background; some are running to something and some are running from something and they all interact with each other,” explains Gavin. “It’s man versus nature and man versus himself. Some people made a fortune and some made nothing during that time and a world in microcosm was created out of nothing — it went from a village of 200 people to a teeming city of 40,000 in four months.”

Killing Lincoln, meanwhile, was a one-off for Nat Geo and made by Scott Free and LA-based Herzog & Co. The two-hour TV movie recreated and dramatised events surrounding the 1865 shooting of the US president and was based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s best-selling book, Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever. Hollywood A-lister Tom Hanks provided on camera narration in the mostly-scripted film.


One reason the factual nets have woken up to drama is the success of historical series on their general entertainment counterparts, from The Tudors to The Borgias to Downtown Abbey to Boardwalk Empire and numerous others.

“Historical dramas have been doing really well, particularly on pay cable and we said wait a second, we do history, this is a sector we should own,” says Hoogstra. “We’re not reclaiming an audience, we’re adding to our audience. We have a stable of reality hits and if you add in high-end historical drama it elevates the whole brand.”

Ironically, as the factual nets move into historical scripted projects, some of the entertainment networks that have built a name on the same genre are starting to move away from history and focus on more contemporary projects. Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik, for example, says his network, having had a run of hit show with historical backdrops it is now looking more at more modern-day projects.

One thing that drama does bring to the viewer mix is more female eyeballs. History says its dramas skew 55% – 45% male-female whereas the typical audience is almost 70% male. The cable net’s follow-up to Hatfields & McCoys was a double-whammy of scripted with 5x2hrs series The Bible and 9x60mins Vikings.

“We did America: The Story of US and Mark [Burnett] talked to us about that and said “I’m going to come up with a big, high-concept idea’,” explains Nancy Dubuc.

It’s fair to say he delivered on that promise as The Bible garnered a staggering 14.8 million viewers through launch night paving the way for Vikings to garner over 6 million (see rating box below).

Vikings is History’s first original scripted project that runs to full series length. History describes it as historical fiction anchored in fact. Produced by MGM, the series revolves around the Norsemen who raided, traded and explored during medieval times and follows the adventures of Ragnar Lothbrok as he rises to become king of the Viking tribes. Created by Michael Hirst (The Tudors), it is produced by Canada’s Take 5 and World 2000 in the UK.

“Michael Hirst loves history and brings that authenticity to a project and we wanted the weapons, boats, clothes, homes and belief systems to be as right as possible,” says Hoogstra. “We do expect our audience wants that level of authenticity even if they are exploring historical fiction.”


An origin story of the Texas Ranger is shaping up to be History’s next drama project. From Hatfields & McCoys’ producer Thinkfactory and Leslie Greif, who co-created and executive produced 204 episodes of Walker Texas Ranger starring Chuck Norris. Early scripts are being worked on for the project, which would be a 6x1hr series.

The doors are open for factual or drama producers to make this new breed of scripted show, but there are certain expectations. Channel execs say they need to be convinced that if a factual producer had a great story, piece of IP or book rights, they could execute that as a drama, which might involve having a director or drama production talent on board.

“Scripted could come from all different sorts of places,” Mykura says. “Killing Lincoln was from Scott Free, but look at something like Banged Up Abroad; it’s not scripted, but has dramatised elements that are more sophisticated than reconstruction and it is made by a doc company [Raw TV]. There’s no hard and fast rule saying only drama producers can bring scripted projects to us.”

Factual producers have a proven ability to do research, bring rigour to a subject matter and are increasingly well-versed in drama reconstructions based on testimony, notes October Films managing director Denman Rooke. “You have to add drama to your skill set,” he adds.

October Films has Spying on Hitler’s Army: The Secret Recordings, a scripted one-off based on the transcripts gleaned from illegally listening to German prisoners of war interned in the UK during World War Two, for Channel 4 in the UK and PBS in the US. The producer is also making a 6x60mins dramatised true crime series for Discovery ID in the US.

Indie producer World Media Rights is also alive to the scripted trend and is working up a slate of potential drama projects that it will have for MIPTV. “We started out in 2007 making predominantly archive shows, but you can’t do that anymore, now you need a show that is in full HD and will sell into at least thirty territories and increasingly these have reconstruction elements,” says company CEO Alan Griffiths. “We’re already making these using the three act structure of a Hollywood movie and moving into full drama is a natural progression.”

WMR has started writing treatments and fleshing out potential characters and will be pitching drama series based episodes of its existing docs, such as an instalment of the Nazi Hunters series about ‘The Jewish Avengers’ and another in its Black Ops series about the hunt for Al Qaeda operative Al-Zarqawi. It will work up six or seven dramas initially and hopes to get a 2x60mins project away in the first instance, Griffiths says.

He estimates a drama, based on one of its existing docs, can be made for about £600,000 (US$908,000) per hour, which although good value for money in scripted terms is still several times the cost of making most non-fiction shows.
In an era of observational docs with their ongoing present tense stories, there is tremendous pressure on producers to capture events on screen. A scripted show at least is more predictable although the costs involved mean that it is a risky business.

Mykura notes: “If you are greenlighting scripted you have to really mean it because it is more expensive by several orders of magnitude than factual and you need to be careful with how you market and promote it because you are banking on it being a hit.”

The expense of developing scripted is something factual producers eyeing this space need to be mindful of. Moving into drama is a tempting proposition, but getting there is fraught with danger and cost, according to John Smithson.

“A lot in the factual community make documentary/drama hybrids with re-enactments and so on, but that’s still playing by the rules of factual TV; most docudrama is greenlit to go into production and as a producer off you go,” he says. “Drama gets greenlit to script stage and then there are many more stages a project can go through, which incur costs that you might not recoup and increase the level of risk. It’s expensive to play this game.”

Smithson imparts some advice for factual producers looking to move into scripted: “You must find out if there is a clear interest in your idea and you mustn’t over-develop anything unless there is a real, firm commitment.”


There certainly is a trend here, but thus far it is exclusively one focused on the US market. “America is taking it on board and as always American commissioning and co-commissioning money is important,” says Rooke.

Such is the importance of the US market that this is a trend that resonates around the world. The factual networks have prospered by taking ownership positions across almost all of their factual and reality shows, but the realities of making drama means fully funding is risky and a coproduction or distribution partner can help share that burden. Accordingly, Sony Pictures Television sells Hatfields & McCoys and has sold it into 150 territories and MGM is selling Vikings.

Keeping things a little closer to the network partner, Mark Burnett’s One Three Media, a joint venture with History owner Hearst, is selling The Bible and Nat Geo’s Global Content Sales is selling Killing Lincoln.

Klondike, meanwhile, will be distributed by Entertainment One, which was preselling it at MIPTV. The show’s six episode run is understood to be costing north of US$25 million, which puts it squarely in the US network TV budget range.

“Discovery wanted a deficit financier; it doesn’t make sense to fully finance,” says John Moraynis, CEO, eOne Television. He notes that Klondike was not a knee-jerk reaction from Discovery to Hatfields and that there was a conversation already underway with Discovery’s VP of global production management Lee Bartlett about drama.

Dolores Gavin says: “We came at [scripted] from the position that the audience at Discovery has an insatiable curiosity and they love learning and storytelling – so what are the stories that we want to tell? And how can we tell stories and go to places that our other shows can’t? Our cameras have been to the bottom of the oceans and places that no-one else has been and we started asking whether there are there some cases where scripted storytelling becomes appropriate. The answer was a resounding yes. At that point we started looking at the epic moments in history that you can tell from a scripted point of view.”

It’s clear that if scripted programming on factual nets has been an experiment, it has been a successful one and there will be more.

Discovery has a development slate and is already looking at other potential scripted projects. “It’s imperative that we offer a number of different avenues for storytelling and we do have a long term plan and are committed to doing more [scripted], in a measured way,” Gavin says. “We have a number of projects in development at various stages and we’ll get to a point, like with Klondike, when we look at each other and think this is the one. Then we’ll make another roll of the dice.”

“We are a factual network so there will always be a factor in what we do but we can use drama to tell a factual story,” Mykura says. “Scripted can be part of the mix, but there won’t be a wholesale change in our approach.”

Factual drama in ratings

Killing Lincoln went out on February 17 and pulled in 3.4 million viewers, making it the biggest show in Fox-owned cable network National Geographic Channel’s history.

While Hatfields & McCoys remains the biggest rating of the factual dramas, History’s other offerings have pulled in huge numbers. The only other show on cable pulling in similar numbers to The Bible is AMC’s zombie show The Walking Dead and the two have swapped top spot, across all US TV, through The Bible’s run.

The biblical epic delivered 13.1 million viewers on its debut and 10.8 million for both the second and third weeks. As TBI went to press in March and with two installments remaining, the show had pulled 68 million viewers in total, factoring in repeats and its showings on History’s sister net Lifetime.

Vikings’ numbers would look stellar in the company of almost any other cable show, but it has not matched The Bible. Shown in a 10pm slot right after the biblical series, it opened with 6.2 million before falling away to 4.6 million in week two and rallying to 4.8 million in week three.

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