"Hatfields & McCoys," the record-breaking miniseries that aired on the History channel earlier this week, came out guns blazing in more ways than one.
Its Memorial Day debut drew 13.9 million viewers, a new high for an entertainment show on ad-supported cable TV. In addition to averaging 13.8 million viewers across its three-night run, the miniseries' numbers actually increased on its final night to 14.3 million viewers, nearly unheard of for a multi-episode program in recent years.
"We felt like if we had two really kick-ass nights, a third would work because people would want to see how it ended," said Nancy Dubuc, History's president and general manager. "That's how it grew."
The program, a decades-long passion project for executive producer Leslie Greif, starred Kevin Costner as Devil Anse Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, patriarchs of the brutal Appalachian families that started battling just after the Civil War.
The story covers the origins of the legendary feud, which are still hazy to this day, and the bloody fallout that included kidnappings, fire bombings and murders. It was History's first foray into scripted programming after an aborted attempt at the genre with the controversial miniseries "The Kennedys."
Media watchers, often using the term "perfect storm," attributed the success to a potent combination of star quality, good timing, strong production values, right network and muscular marketing.
"It looked like a feature film and everything about it screamed 'event programming,'" said Gary Lico, chief executive of CableU.tv, a cable network research firm. "There hasn't been anything like this anywhere on TV for a while."
Dubuc, a close-to-the-vest executive who's not known for showboating, acknowledged popping some Champagne at the network's headquarters this week as the extent of the ratings triumph sank in.
"Hatfields & McCoys" was groundbreaking for History for a number of reasons. It put the network's stamp on scripted programming, laying the foundation for the next show, "The Vikings," and proved that a beginning-of-summer holiday weekend can bring in massive crowds.
It also drew in significantly more women and younger, advertiser-coveted 18-49-year-old viewers than the channel norm. The series averaged 13.8 million viewers over its three-night run, with 6 million adults 25-54 years old and 4.9 million 18-49-year-olds, according to Nielsen.
The gender split of the audience was another milestone: 55% male, 45% female. History's crowd is usually closer to 70% men, Dubuc said. The network's heavy slate of reality programming, which includes shows like "Pawn Stars," "Swamp People" and "Ice Road Truckers," typically appeals more to men.
Though the miniseries was aimed squarely at History's core male fans, its family themes resonated with women.
"It's a gruesome story and it's easy on the surface to judge it as a violent western," Dubuc said. "But it has these very emotional threads about love and protection of family, losing your children, which are very relatable."
Demographic breakdowns have yet to come for regions of the country, but some TV analysts think it may have scored as well in big cities as in the South or the heartland, which tend to be drawn more toward conventional storytelling like westerns.
"It doesn't matter where you live or what ethnic background you're from," said Shari Anne Brill, TV research analyst. "We all have crazy kinfolk."
Even the timing of the miniseries, which some people in the industry questioned, turned out to be spot-on. History executives never doubted that the holiday weekend was a good platform, having premiered the hit docudrama "Gettysburg" the year prior.
Viewing levels are traditionally strong on that night, Dubuc said, and networks air mostly repeats after May sweeps. Major sporting events like the Indianapolis 500 are finished by Monday night, and competition for male viewers, at least in original programming, is weak, she said.
The run-up to Memorial Day, however, is rife with opportunity to promote an event movie to men through Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA games and other nationally televised sports. History did just that, after having spent nearly six months on its own air teasing the miniseries for its core viewers.
The marketing campaign used stark, gritty images of Costner and Paxton with the tagline, "Never forgive. Never forget." It included stunts like wrapping New York City subway cars and sponsoring the HBOFloyd Mayweather Jr.-Miguel Cotto pay-per-view fight. TV ads used a memorable vintage-sounding song from roots rock band the Silent Comedy.
"Marketing has become so important because of the fragmented TV audience," said David Scardino, entertainment specialist with Santa Monica ad agency RPA. "These promotions said you'd be rewarded if you watched, and then the show made good on that."
Since success begets imitators, "Hatfields & McCoys" may mean a further rush into westerns, a genre that's already started to have a renaissance, and the mostly abandoned miniseries format.
As for "Hatfields & McCoys," Dubuc said it's too early to tell if the network will revisit the relatives from Kentucky and West Virginia. She's disinclined, saying she "doesn't want to be my own worst enemy" by milking the hit.
Meantime, there's a quick turnaround on the DVD, which launches July 31.