Downton Abbey transformed PBS from a sometimes stodgy channel into a destination network, drawing 5.4 million viewers for its second-season finale (doubling PBS' primetime average). Now, Downton creator Julian Fellowes has signed with NBC to create The Gilded Age, his first series for American broadcast TV. NBC is betting that the drama will attract the same audience for its depiction of New York's moguls of the 1880s as does Fellowes' valentine to early 20th century England.
"As soon as Julian could take meetings, it was almost a done deal," says Jennifer Salke, NBC Entertainment president, adding that The Gilded Age has "an upstairs/downstairs quality, but there's also romance, intrigue and mystery, which are all the ingredients of shows women like."
Of course, this isn't the first time a broadcast network has developed a period show. Decades ago, Westerns like Gunsmoke dominated the ratings, along with World War II series both serious (Combat!) and silly (Hogan's Heroes). Occasional retro winners followed, mostly comedies like M*A*S*H and Happy Days. But it's been nearly 15 years since broadcast has had a hit drama set in the past: the frontier romance/adventure Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
Recent attempts like ABC's Pan Am, CBS' Swingtown and NBC's Playboy Club all failed quickly. Meanwhile, cable had filled the void. Today, AMC's Mad Men, HBO's Boardwalk Empire and Starz's Spartacus are the new must-see TV shows.
So why are broadcast networks still trying to conquer the genre? Cable, Salke says, has "a provocative water-cooler element and opportunities for more sex and violence, but there's a way for networks to have that same kind of feeling. Maybe without being as explicit, but not shying away from any subject matter."
CBS has found some success this season with the '60s-set Vegas — in part by not emphasizing its time period. "We essentially mute the period," says executive producer Greg Walker. "We don't focus on the tail fin on a Cadillac. We put the characters, not an airline or a club, front and center."
ABC also has several period pieces in development: Highlanders, set in medieval Scotland, in which clans battle invading Vikings; A Knight's Tale, based on the 2001 Heath Ledger movie; Big Thunder, about a mining town during the Gold Rush; and Finn & Sawyer, which sees the classic Mark Twain characters as young men in steampunk New Orleans.
Along with The Gilded Age, NBC is developing three more splashy costume dramas. Closest to production: Dracula, starring The Tudors' Jonathan Rhys Meyers. "It's full of romance, sex and juicy soap opera elements that feel timeless," Salke says. The network is in talks with Hugh Laurie to star as the notorious Blackbeard in the 18th century pirate saga Crossbones and plans to cast an unknown in Cleopatra. "The mistake we and others have made in the past is that the experience of the characters didn't tap into something universal and timeless," says Salke. "Each of these shows could push the envelope far enough to require some flexibility from our standards department." (They're also expensive enough to require co-producers, mostly foreign.)
Analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Media Group believes the network period drama can make a comeback. "If these shows can be done as event programming, with strong writing and characters that are relatable, then a wide audience could embrace them," he says. To really succeed, "it has to be the right place, the right time and the right cast." Get all three and the rest is history.