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History Channel Steps Up Big Impact Biz

'Hatfields' giant success opens doors to second round of major originals

Hitting it out of the ballpark on the first at-bat is the aim of any cable programmer looking to shift into scripted viability.

Few, however, could have expected that History’s 2012 miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” would reach an astonishing 14.3 million in the last of three nights.

“It outperformed my expectations,” says Dirk Hoogstra, senior VP of development and programming for History. “It gave us a lot of confidence moving forward.”

That’s something of an understatement. If anything, the success of “Hatfields” gave formerly docu-heavy History a mandate to make more original scripted programming. And now the cabler roars back with two high-profile, epic-format series: “Vikings” (nine episodes slated, with possible continuation) and the 10-episode limited-run “The Bible.”

Both draw from name creators. “Vikings” is the brainchild of “Tudors” creator and writer Michael Hirst, while “Bible” has emerged as a “legacy” project (as Hoogstra describes it) from reality show producer Mark Burnett.

The Bible” was pitched and in development before Hoogstra joined the net in 2007. “Vikings,” however, came to be when a story in the trades about MGM developing a script based on the Nordic leaders led him to set up an immediate lunch to grab the nascent project.

Both shows tell history-based tales, but with a certain amount of fictionalization thrown in. The actual level of history to fiction is being calibrated to match the brand aspirations of the network, says Hoogstra.

“We are figuring out what our balance is and how far we can push that as far as being factually accurate,” he says. “We’re being cautious about that.”

He recognizes that the subject matter of each show is potentially flammable, depending on audience expectations.

“We’ve been very deliberately cautious,” he says, noting Hirst’s attention to detail and the “Vikings” commitment to consultation with historians.

Additionally, he says, Bible discussion “can be so divisive,” but, “Mark and his team have done an amazing job at presenting these stories in a way that would be all-inclusive. It’s a very simple story: This book has been influential over time, and these are some of the stories in it.”

“Authentic” and “epic” seem to be the buzzwords for both, but there’s more to deciding to invest in such high-profile series than just fulfilling a brand mission. “Hatfields” gave the network a valuable learning experience in how to market such big-impact skeins.

And then there’s the cachet factor. Shows such as “The Bible” and “Vikings” can help continue History’s elevation in the perception that its scripted programming will be of the highest quality — something that began with “Hatfields & McCoys.”

“There definitely is a prestige factor,” agrees Hoogstra, “but it’s really just another tool in the tool belt as we try to compete with everybody else. It’s another type of programming with a proven track record over time that we can now figure our way in so it can help our business grow.”

No matter how “Vikings” and “The Bible” perform in the ratings, however, it’s unlikely that they’ll shift the rudder too swiftly in the network’s overall original programming strategy. More scripted projects are in the works, including a Texas Rangers origin story.

“Our core business will always be a volume of hit reality shows,” says Hoogstra. “That’s the basis for everything. We’ll never stop doing that. What we’re doing now is just layering on top of that high-quality historical dramas.”

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