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Traveling in Time to Find Viewers

Cable networks will look to build on the momentum created for the genre by recent projects including FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson with limited series and specials of their own pulled from the pages of history.

HBO will tackle the 1990s controversy surrounding Anita Hill’s sex-discrimination charges levied during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with the Saturday (April 16) premiere of original move Confirmation. It will also dig into President Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year in office with the May 21 telefilm All the Way.

On the dramatic-series side, Sundance TV will examine the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland on centenary Sunday, April 24, with the limited series Rebellion.

And A&E on Memorial Day (May 30) will premiere the four-episode remake of 1970’s slavery-themed miniseries Roots.

The projects follow the recent ratings success of high-profile, history-themed projects. FX’s 10-part series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson drew 3.9 million viewers (per Nielsen live-plus-same-day ratings) for its finale April 5 after generating a network-record 5.1 million viewers (also on a live-plus-same-day basis) for the Feb. 2 series premiere.

The retelling of the infamous 1995 Simpson murder trial also generated significant press coverage and social-media buzz that helped build awareness and ratings.

WGN America set a network ratings record with the March 4 premiere of original drama series Underground — the story of slaves escaping bondage along the 19th century Underground Railroad — drawing 1.4 million viewers.

Network executives said the success of The People v. O.J Simpson and Underground are helping to build momentum for a genre that appeals both to older viewers and hard-to-reach younger watchers.

“The appeal of television it its ability to transport you into a story, and to be able to do that across time and go to early 20th century Ireland, or even just back to the 1990s to the O.J Simpson trial, is almost like time-traveling and immersing yourself in that time and place,” said Jan Diedrichsen, executive director of SundanceTV. “That has incredible appeal to viewers of all ages.”

Rebellion, which dramatizes Ireland’s fight for independence through the eyes of three women and their families, is a departure from the network’s mostly fiction-based scripted series. But Diedrichsen said the series fits the SundanceTV brand because it tells a strong and compelling story through well-developed, engaging and relatable characters.

Its historical backdrop is an added benefit for viewers, Diedrichsen said. “Viewers know the ending to the story — the Irish gained their independence — but you’re watching this story and experiencing history differently than reading about it. That allows you to connect and identify with the characters, because you know more than the characters know.”

History, which has scored in the past with shows such as Texas Rising, Hatfields & McCoys and The Bible, will look to draw viewers to its remake of Roots, a remake of the 1977 ABC miniseries based on Alex Haley’s best-selling novel about the journey of an African-American family through slavery. The four-night, eight-hour series will premiere May 30 on A+E Networks outlets History, A&E and Lifetime.

With viewers looking to the past to see how its events shaped today’s issues, the genre is as popular now as ever, History general manager Jana Bennett said.

“It’s not accidental that there’s been some success with shows that look at real stories, rather than just fictional depictions, and that’s true of O.J., Underground and [Netflix’s drug-themed series] Narcos,” she said. “I think the audience is really up to seeing the real story of how did we get here and looking at the bigger questions of what’s the context of where we are now, and how it reflects history.

“There’s a real need among viewers for a change of pace from the acceleration of today’s technology-driven environment and an appetite for history, which helps to answer the question of how we got here in the first place,” Bennett said.