Why the epic is bigger than ever

Once upon a time, viewers turned to cable television for edgy, interesting characters and nuanced storytelling, and to the summer multiplex for epics and fantasies, gladiators and knights in armor. Not so much anymore. A wave of episodic series built around empires of yore, whether real or imagined, are pulling in big ratings for such networks as HBO, Showtime and Starz. Why now and to whom do these epics appeal? We turned to top execs at each network and found that their answers fell into a few compelling categories.

Production capability

Advances in production techniques, such as computer-generated imagery, have made it possible to create cinema-style dazzle on a cable TV budget, says Carmi Zlotnik, head of programming at Starz. “It’s now well within the ambition of television to pull these things off, creatively, technically and financially,” says Zlotnick. “It’s opened up a whole realm of possibilities.” The young pay-TV channel premiered its high-rated sword-and-sandals epic “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” in January 2010. “Our goal was to try to create something that didn’t exist elsewhere on television. We’ve been inspired by things in the graphic novel world that did well theatrically,” he adds, citing “300,” the blockbuster gladiator film that “Spartacus” occasionally mimics in its visual style.

Ratings precedents


“The antecedent for us was ‘The Tudors,’” says Showtime President of Entertainment David Nevins, referring to the lavishly produced series launched in 2007 that revolved around England’s King Henry VIII and the Tudor dynasty. It pulled top ratings (and three costume design Emmys) during its four-season run. “That series created an appetite in our audience for the kind of sweeping historical drama we present in ‘The Borgias.’” Written and directed by Neil Jordan, “The Borgias” centers on the rise to power of the titular Italian family in 15th century Rome, after Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) contrives to become pope. “‘The Borgias’ has a different tone — it’s hookier, with lots of sword fighting and great battle scenes and those twisted family dynamics,” says Nevins. It has also become the network’s biggest draw to date, currently running 17% ahead of peak ratings for “The Tudors.”

A license to ill

Series such as these offer viewers an escape into an elaborate alternative world, one where behaviors and impulses that would be censured in the present are allowed to run rampant. HBO’s visually sumptuous “Game of Thrones” follows the violent struggles among seven Middle-earth dynasties. The pilot episodes presents its short-statured royal, the Imp (Peter Dinklage), cavorting with prostitutes, and includes incestuous sex and beheadings galore.

“These characters get away with behavior that wouldn’t be respectable in our time and place,” says Nevins specifically about “The Borgias,” though it seems to apply to all the epic series. “They’re acting out of the id, which makes the show fun.” On Starz, “Spartacus” invokes aspects of the master-slave relationship that would have sexual harassment lawyers hovering today. “On pay TV, we can show the full range of human experience without having to edit ourselves the way you would on broadcast or basic cable,” notes Zlotnik. “The slaves were subject to their owner’s desires, and we know from history that certain relationships happened because of that.”

International appeal

Higher production costs for these series are somewhat offset when they can generate increased foreign sales revenue. “We definitely spend more to produce this, but it has enormous foreign value,” says Nevins about “The Borgias,” which is a Canadian co-production filmed in Hungary. “It’s done incredibly well for us in the major European territories. That’s given us some leeway to invest in A-level production values.” Based on Italian history, the story is “not as well known in the English-speaking world as ‘The Tudors,’” notes Nevins, “so we carefully positioned it as the story of ‘the original crime family,’ with reference to it being the inspiration for Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather.’”

Of course, offshore appeal can vary for productions as different as these and HBO’s 1920s American gangster epic “Boardwalk Empire.” Says Michael Lombardo, the premium cable channel’s programming chief: “The truth is that for highly serialized shows, the international market is always challenging. We don’t really rely on it in making the decision to greenlight a show, because until a show is produced and you can show it to a buyer, you have no idea if it’s going to do well over there. International buyers are sophisticated enough that costumes and production value alone are not going to do it for them.”

Sturdy, marketable stories


After success with “Spartacus,” Starz added its “Camelot” series, based on the legend of Merlin and King Arthur. “These stories have stood the test of time. They’re brands in and of themselves, which makes them easier to market,” says Zlotnick. “They have themes that are continually in the zeitgeist, like “How do you stand up against oppression,” or ‘What does it mean to be a leader?’”

Also, knights in armor and swords-and-sandals are genres that tend to find a fervent followings at fan gatherings like Comic-Con, San Diego’s huge annual gathering for enthusiasts of comics, graphic novels, and fantasy and science fiction. “By design, a lot of the programming we do appeals to that audience,” Zlotnik adds, noting that the high level of online activity among such fans aids marketing. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” missed last year’s Comic-Con, as it was on the verge of commencing production in Belfast. Lombardo says the show will be a presence at this summer’s session but that it’s appeal is broader than that.

“There is no doubt,” he says, “that the scope of ‘Game of Thrones,’ in terms of its production value and settings, is an asset. But I honestly don’t think that’s enough to keep an audience. You need to feel emotionally connected and engaged by the characters. That’s what people are responding to with this show.”