Spiritual Battles Ahead for ‘Vikings’

Michael Hirst has sympathy for pagans, including eighth-century Vikings, and the fate their religion suffered at the hands of Christianity.

If that turns around the cliché of Norse raiders savaging Christian monasteries in Britain, well, that’s nothing new for the creator and writer of History’s hit Vikings. After surpassing all other new cable series last year to average 4.3 million total viewers (2 million in the adults 25-54 bracket), the show returns for a 10-episode second season, set in A.D. 796, this coming Thursday (Feb. 27), 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Season one was a lot more than swords, sails and a total absence of historically incorrect hornet helmets. It was a deep dive into the family and religious lives of Dark Ages Scandinavians, as well as their technology and their feudal social structures.

Hirst told The Wire a highlight of season two is the conflict between Viking religious beliefs and how “the triumph of Christianity meant the total demise and disappearance of pagan religion.” It’s personified by Athelstan (George Blagden), the monk taken prisoner by Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) in season one and now caught between the Saxon and Viking worlds and their gods. “It was a real issue for him, and was a real issue for a lot of people at the time,” Hirst said in a telephone interview from his home in flood-soaked England.

Viewers also will see that Vikings, more than merely raiders, were settlers. One of Ragnar’s goals this season is to make a treaty with the English to build communities and farm, not just plunder. As Hirst notes, Vikings founded Dublin and York, England, in addition to colonizing North America centuries before Columbus.

Season two has plenty of violence, no mistake. “No one is denying that they were brutal and the world was brutal,” Hirst said. But bear in mind the tales of their bloodthirsty deeds were written about by the Christian monks who were their victims. And one could also say, “They happened to be particularly brilliant fighters.”

Season three, which Hirst is writing now, would include one heck of a centerpiece for the historic Ragnar.

“It’s no secret that I want them to attack Paris, because Paris at that time was a very significant city,” he said of the raid in 845 A.D. “There were over 100 Viking ships, and it’s a great story I want to tell.”

‘March Madness’ Meets the Oscars

It’s Hollywood awards season, and In Demand is pushing hard with a multimedia campaign featuring a series of interviews with some of Tinseltown’s best — and a touch of March Madness.

In supporting the more than 20 current Academy Award-winning titles available on its Movies on Demand platform through March, In Demand is taking a page, or a bracket, from another staple of the early spring — the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. To ease the process of filling out brackets, In Demand teamed with Run Your Pool to develop automated custom online versions.

“You can start a pool and get up to 50 of your friends or office colleagues involved for free,” In Demand digital marketing director Vincent Onorati told The Wire, noting perhaps tongue in cheek that the Hollywood handicapping is strictly for entertainment purposes. “We expect the bulk of the leagues to start on Thursday, Friday,” ahead of the March 2 Oscar telecast.

The multi-pronged Oscar campaign aims to deliver more than 40 million impressions to bring awareness to the nominated titles and drive buys. Those efforts are being flanked by a social media campaign adopted by the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing after being introduced by In Demand in 2010, as well as the studios’ own initiatives.

Whereas Movies On Demand deployed a sweepstakes in 2013, this year it’s looking to raise the profile of the nominated films via a partnership with IndieWire that yielded exclusive “Contender Conversations” with Oscar hopefuls, also available on affiliates’ VOD platforms. IndieWire has built an “Awards Season Spotlight” page with editorial, video, photography, interviews and MOD ads. Through geotargeting, Web visitors are driven to custom MSO landing pages or In Demand’s site. “We caught up with CateBlanchett (Blue Jasmine) at the New York Film Festival,” Onorati said. “We have 15 or so across a breadth of films.”

— Mike Reynolds