Historical License

Who would’ve known that Leonardo da Vinci was such a chick magnet?

Yet that’s how the iconic Renaissance- period painter/inventor is characterized in Starz’s hit scripted series Da Vinci’s Demons, one of several cable shows that’s reimagining history by taking creative license in its portrayal of important figures.

With shows such as Da Vinci’s Demons, Pivot’s still-in- development series about the life of a young William Shakespeare and History’s portrayal of Norse hero Ragnar Lodbrok in Vikings, cable networks can embellish the oftenstodgy images of historical figures and put them into more contemporary settings to appeal to a cross-section of viewers looking to be entertained and informed.

“We think about [da Vinci] as this older guy with a beard, but in order to get to the older guy with a beard, you had to go through a period of his 20s and 30s when that character is evolving,” Starz managing director Carmi Zlotnik said. “We looked at the historic writings and commentary about him, and filled in a section of his life so that it completes the entire arc of his life. It’s a way to make the character arc coherent for the audience.”

Over the past two decades, historical content has resonated with viewers looking to make sense of a contemporary mix of economic woes, global unrest, societal changes and homeland disasters, network executives said.

Throughout cable TV history, networks have found success producing elaborate period costume dramas such as Showtime’s The Tudors and The Borgias; BBC America’s Copper; National Geographic Channel’s Killing Lincoln; AMC’s Hell on Wheels; AMC’s Mad Men; HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Deadwood; PBS’s Downton Abbey and Starz’s Spartacus franchise. Now, they’re reanimating historical figures with a bit of license.

Successful theatrical movies like the 1997 film Titanic, which remains the second-highest-grossing film in history, to more recent TV projects like History’s 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys — the most-watched cable series ever, with an average of more than 13 million viewers over its three-episode run — have shown that viewers can’t get enough of reliving the past on both the big and small screen.

“I really believe that history is in the zeitgeist right now — people are very curious about who we are and where we came from,” Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president and general manager of History and H2, said. “It’s natural, because there’s a lot of uncertainty about the future, so when that happens people tend to look back.”

Added Zlotnik: “I think that in troubled times, it’s soothing for people to look at what other people have gone through and see that civilization has come out OK on the other side.”

But people also want to be entertained, so History, Starz and other networks looking to bring period projects to TV must walk the fine line of remaining true to the facts while making shows palatable for viewers who like fast-paced storylines and action.

“If done correctly, these shows tap into the same nerve endings that superhero movies do,” Pivot president Evan Shapiro said. “There is a bit of escapism — the idea is, it transports you to a place where you’re never going to get to go. I think people like to pretend they’re living during these eras, even though it’s make-believe.”

Pivot, set to launch this August, will pique the interest of its target millennial audience next year with Will, a tentatively titled series that takes a unique look at the life of playwright Sir William Shakespeare, Pivot senior vice president of scripted programming Holly Hines said.

“We find him to be a very fascinating, illustrious man who had this great career, but you don’t know much about how he got into it or who he was,” Hines said. This new approach, she said, is something that “we think millennials will definitely relate to.”

Added Shapiro: “[Period pieces] allow you to do allegory, which true realism doesn’t allow you to do. Through Shakespeare, [series producer] Craig Pearce is showing the ability to transcend class and talk about the freedom and desire to move beyond the confines of who you are in your upbringing, and that’s what a great period does. It’s not easy to do but its high-risk, high-reward.”

History’s Hoogstra said viewers will be very critical if networks take too many liberties in telling a historical story. The network received many email messages and Facebook posts about the accuracy of its freshman drama Vikings, he said, adding that the discussion — and the increased focus on Viking culture — is ultimately good for the show.

“There’s active discussion and debate on what’s accurate and where did this person come from and what was the right era and whether the oars are on the wrong side of the boat,” he said. “There’s an enormous amount of historical engagement which I’m thrilled by. The fact that you can watch this series and Google the names of these characters, and get real historical information, is a big advantage for us.”

The network has already green-lighted a second season of Vikings, which finished season one this past April as the year’s most-watched new cable show. “We set out to make a male-skewing show,” Hoogstra said. “The good thing about doing a show around the Vikings is that they were an action-oriented people and prone to conflict, so this was a perfect fit for us.”

Starz’s Zlotnik said that the network and Da Vinci’s Demons creator/executive producer David Goyer performed extensive research on Leonardo da Vinci and his time period, so any liberties taken with regard to the storyline didn’t diminish da Vinci’s historical significance.

“Anytime you’re dealing with a historic figure and shine a light on him, I think it’s good for history and for the history buff s because it brings something back to the public’s attention,” Zlotnik said. “I think people will be amazed at the historical research and nuance that David has done and how he’s tried to capture somebody in a moment in time that’s not really recorded in history.”

Da Vinci’s Demons averaged 4 million views per episode across all platforms. The series, which will continue to portray da Vinci as a young, sexy genius, has been renewed for a second season.

“The idea of doing things like Da Vinci’s Demons is to take a historical character that hasn’t been touched in drama before and present him in a new way that will appeal to people that were interested in the history and some of the factual bits,” added Zlotnik.

History, which has had enormous success with prolific reality series producer Mark Burnett’s scripted retelling of The Bible this past March, will look to bring Depression-era outlaws Bonnie & Clyde to the small screen in a four-hour miniseries that will run simultaneously on sister networks A&E and Lifetime, according to Hoogstra. It will also retell the story of famed magician Harry Houdini.

There will always be an audience for well-produced period shows, Pivot’s Hines said, even if some of the depicted history has a more contemporary ring to it.

“Throughout the history of television, we’ve always gone back to those big epic stories, whether it’s Cleopatra or The Tudors,” she said. “It’s always something that people will be interested in.”


Cable networks are taking poetic license to draw viewers to shows based on historical events.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.