The Bible and Vikings made History last month in more ways than one. Both the religious miniseries and the period drama helped the channel ascend to the No. 1 spot among cable networks during March. That means less than a year after Hatfields & McCoys launched History into the scripted world, the channel is now three-for-three with original dramas.
History has come a long way from the days when it was mostly known for running old-fashioned documentaries. Back in the early 2000s, the network pulled in respectable ratings for shows like Dead Men's Secrets and specials on such topics as Abraham Lincoln, the Titanic and the Mayflower — but it hardly created buzz.
Brent Montgomery, an executive producer of History's Pawn Stars, was a cameraman at the channel during that time and remembers one particularly dry assignment: shooting footage for an hour-long program about shovels. "I thought, 'OK, that's interesting, what are we doing the rest of the day?'" he says. "It was all shovel. The shovel had a pretty interesting background, but it could have been summed up in three minutes, as opposed to an hour."
By 2006, the channel was losing viewers, and its overreliance on World War II documentaries had become a punch line (some called it "the Hitler channel"). "It took a while to get away from those old stereotypes," says Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president of development and programming.
Nancy Dubuc — now president of entertainment and media at A+E Networks, where she also oversees A&E and Lifetime — became the channel's boss in 2007 and made some quick moves. "Nancy really believed that History had the potential to bring in new viewers with more entertainment-focused, character-driven shows," Hoogstra says. Two of the most popular episodes of Modern Marvels, about ice road trucking and logging technologies, inspired the hits Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men.
Then came signature series Pawn Stars, Swamp People and American Pickers. Montgomery says the Pawn Stars' blue-collar historians were the perfect draw for History's predominantly male audience. "People want to learn and be entertained simultaneously," he adds. "History has a wide and deep enough brand that they can do both."
Dubuc says History's "monstrous" growth between 2009 and 2013 (when viewership mushroomed by 100 percent) "proved to us that the channel has power well beyond what we could even imagine." In 2012, History was the No. 4 basic cable network in its target demographic (adults 25-54) — behind only ESPN, USA and TBS.
Looking to grow even more, History decided to tackle scripted fare. "We long dreamed of playing in that ball game," Dubuc says. "But if we were going to do it, we were going to do it to win." Hatfields & McCoys had been pitched by executive producer Leslie Greif around Hollywood for years, but after History signed on, the six-hour miniseries (starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton) finally became real — and a smash. Last spring, it made History the first cable channel to beat the broadcasters as the No. 1 network for an entire week, and it later won five Emmys.
History isn't done with Hatfields yet. TV Guide Magazine has learned that Greif will executive produce the upcoming reality show Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning for the channel. The unscripted show will follow modern-day descendants Jim McCoy and Mark Hatfield as they come together to launch a legal moonshine business. Here's how History describes the show: "With over 100 years of tradition, original family recipes and 21st century ingenuity, these clans will attempt to put aside their differences long enough to brew up a white lightning business."
History's ability to attract a mass audience to Hatfields convinced Mark Burnett that the channel would be the best home for The Bible. The miniseries ended its 10-hour run on March 31 with 11.7 million viewers.
"It made perfect sense for History to take this on," Burnett says. "They realized that most people who watch History are from the middle of the country and go to church." Hoogstra says Bible specials have done well for History, so "we knew there was an appetite for that kind of programming. [Burnett] is not only an amazingly talented producer but he's a force of nature on what he can do on the marketing side."
Even though the initial run is over, The Bible will still have a big presence on the channel. "I think it will be replayed every year," Burnett says. "People are thirsty for the message." Burnett is cutting the five two-hour installments into 10 one-hour episodes to stretch out in reruns. And although he and History scrapped their original plans to make The Bible a documentary/scripted-drama hybrid featuring real-life theologians and other talking heads, the producer is now incorporating those on-camera interviews into a special expanded edition, tentatively titled Decoding The Bible, which will air around Christmas.
Separately, Burnett is also editing a three-hour theatrical version of The Bible, focusing on Jesus and the crucifixion, to run in movie theaters this fall. And he and wife Roma Downey are talking to History about a follow-up project "in the same vein, which we've been developing for the past year."
History had a hunch that The Bible would be a hit — particularly around Easter — and used it to help launch Vikings, the channel's first regular scripted series. The period drama, from The Tudors creator Michael Hirst, stars Gabriel Byrne as Viking chief Earl Haraldson and Travis Fimmel as Ragnar, the farmer who eventually becomes a powerful Viking leader.
Hirst says audiences have a right to expect that Vikings will stay fairly true to real history. "I start with research, the facts and as much reality as I can get," he says. "History was looking for a guarantee that this could be historically backed up." But the channel was also looking for a character-based drama. "We want you to care about the Vikings," says Hirst, "and who's ever cared about Vikings?"
Even before History announced on April 5 that it had ordered a second season, Hirst was already at work on new scripts and was looking forward to returning to Ireland this summer to resume shooting. (He'd also like to trek to Iceland and Norway.) "We're only beginning the ascent of Ragnar," he says. "He will eventually become one of the great kings of Scandinavia." Hirst is also proud of the show's deep dive into Viking society and paganism. "I really take them into the heart of the pagan world, and I don't think it's ever been done on TV before."
This season's final episode, airing Sunday, April 28, "is very tragic, and many things change," Hirst says. "We're setting up a new season where the ascent of Ragnar continues in unexpected ways. But the whole scale will change and get bigger, because he sets off with one boat initially, but by Season 2, he's going to be invading with a fleet."
Later this year, History will simulcast the miniseries Bonnie and Clyde, starring Emile Hirsch, Holly Hunter and William Hurt, with sister network Lifetime. And lest you think History has completely shed its World War II-centric past, the channel just optioned a book about a group of soldiers who fought together in the European theater. "It's one of those things you read and can't believe it's real," Hoogstra says.
Beyond that, History is also developing a Harry Houdini miniseries starring Adrien Brody as the master magician and a limited series that takes place during the American Revolution.
But History's bread and butter remain reality TV. Just as the series Counting Cars was spun off with a breakout player from Pawn Stars, History has given a fan-favorite character from Ax Men his own show: Shelby Stanga, a New Orleans-based logger. "He's a dreamer and a schemer," Hoogstra says, "a backwoods entrepreneur always trying to figure out how he's going to get his next buck."
History's critics aren't happy that much of its traditional documentary fare is gone. Iowa senator Chuck Grassley made headlines last year when he expressed his displeasure on Twitter: "Why do we have such a channel when it doesn't do history?" But most of those programs can still be found on History's spinoff channel, H2. As for the mother ship, "We're constantly exploring," Hoogstra says. "We've developed animated series. We've looked at comedy. I don't know that these things will ever end up on our air, but we have to always be looking."
The network has been paid perhaps the ultimate compliment by spawning a host of copycats, such as truTV's Hardcore Pawn. Another competitor, Discovery, is also getting into the scripted game with its own epic miniseries, Klondike. "While everyone else tries to figure out who to copy and what bandwagon to jump on," says Dubuc, "as long as we offer something people haven't seen, we'll be in pretty good standing."