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Esquire Orders Scripted Drama ‘Beowulf’ From ITV Studios (EXCLUSIVE)

Esquire Network has given a series order to ITV Studios’ “Beowulf,” which marks the NBCUniversal cabler’s second scripted project, Variety has learned.

The series, set to debut next year, follows Esquire’s order for “Spotless,” a dark drama about brothers that bows Nov. 14. The scripted orders are an effort to diversify the programming slate of the channel as it hits its second anniversary this month.

Beowulf,” a re-imagining of the mythological historical poem, revolves around a troubled warrior who experiences love and loss yet shares a deep binding comradery with his fellow kinsmen. Esquire has ordered 13 episodes. “Da Vinci’s Demons” alum Kieran Bew stars as the title character, with William Hurt, Joanne Whalley, Ed Spellers and David Ajala rounding out the cast. James Dormer wrote the script and exec produces with Tim Haines and Katie Newman.

Matt Hanna, who has just been promoted to exec VP of development and production, describes the ambitious effort as “Game of Thrones” meets “Lord of the Rings.”

“Part of the challenge with everyone on DVR and watching content where and when they want it is breaking through,” Hanna said. “We’ve been very focused on coming up with a daring and ambitious slate of programming. This show is an epic, dark age drama.”

Hanna was previously senior VP of original programming and helped steer the launch of Esquire on what had been the Style channel. He’s developed some of the channel’s most successful series to date, including “Friday Night Tykes” and “Knife Fight.”

In his new role, Hanna will continue to develop and oversee all original programming for the network reporting to Esquire president and E! g.m. Adam Stotsky.

Since its launch in September 2013, Esquire has fielded 26 original programs aimed at an upscale male audience. Comparing 2015 to date to last year, the cable net is up 25% in total viewers (123,000), 22% in adults 18-49 (60,000) and 11% in men 18-49 (31,000).

“In this day in age, growth is challenging. It doesn’t just happen,” Stotsky said. “You have to prove yourself every single hour of every single day and we’ve done that for the past two years.”

Scripted series are an important part of the mix but Stotsky says that it will not be a “huge focus for us.” His goal is to turn Esquire into must-see TV for men with a variety of shows.

“We’re really committed to creating a diverse slate of content, both on the scripted side and the unscripted and event side,” Stotsky said, referencing programs like the eight-day broadcast of Pamplona, Spain’s famed Running of the Bulls festival this past summer. “For us, it’s really a broader mission and having an entire network experience, and really connecting with these guys,” he said.

Part of that broad goal is bouncing off the success of the cable net’s current hits, including spinoffs for kid football docuseries “Friday Night Tykes,” which will head to a different city with Friday Night Tykes: Western, PA,” and “Team Ninja Warrior,” an offshoot of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”

“Team Ninja Warror” will feature teams made from fan-favorite contestants, which will be familiar to Esquire viewers as the channel carries reruns of “American Ninja Warrior.” “We’re looking to capitalize off it when the mothership isn’t on the air,” Hanna said.

Other than sports, auds have proven to be invested in food fare (think “Knife Fight,” which enters Season 4 next month) and bar-inspired series (“Brew Dogs,” “Best Bars in America”). Up next in that arena is “Uncorked,” which bows this November and revolves around aspiring master sommeliers.

“The subject matter of wine is something that most men are wildly intimated by,” Stotsky said, adding that he hopes the show also has appeal to women. “We’ve always said, Esquire is not the guys’ locker room. We’re making shows that are decidedly masculine in their appeal, but definitely a very welcome environment for the women, as well as the men that we’re catering to.”

Esquire’s track record during the past two years has taught Hanna and Stotsky that lighter lifestyle-centric programming doesn’t connect with viewers as well as highly specific concepts such as food and brews and such.

“Some of the lifestyle stuff that we had hoped for, specifically travel, kind of landed a little softly for us,” Hanna said. “The shows were incredibly well-produced, but I think that’s more of a testament to the shifting landscape of this paradox of choice.”

On that note, Stotsky added, “We’ve learned that ideas need to be a little bit self-starting, in terms of garnering digital buzz and social buzz and press coverage. It’s difficult for Esquire to have huge marketing campaigns. We’re looking for ideas that can capture a’ zeitgeisty’ moment.” He attributes part of “Friday Night Tykes” success to the recent wave of media attention paid to football head injuries.

With “Beowulf” in the hopper and “Spotless” debuting next month, Hanna and Stotsky are eager to see how the audience responds to scripted offerings.

“People are going to start saying, ‘I can’t believe that show is on Esquire,'” Stotsky predicted. “I’m excited for that type of response.”

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