History got off to a hot start in the arena under then-president Nancy Dubuc, now A+E Networks CEO, with a string of three big hits — miniseries Hatfields & McCoys and The Bible and series Vikings. While History continued to debut a new miniseries every year between 2012 and 2016, most recently Roots, the network did not greenlight a follow-up series to Vikings until Navy SEAL drama Six, which had a strong debut this year and was renewed for a second season.
The network has since accelerated its scripted expansion, picking up three new series: the Knights Templar drama Knightfall, executive produced by Jeremy Renner; the UFO-themed Blue Book, from Robert Zemeckis; and the six-part Bill Clinton impeachment saga The Breach, from RJ Cutler, with installments about other U.S. presidents in the works as part of a planned The Commanders anthology series.
As the first of the new batch, Knightfall, debuts this Wednesday, the network’s new EVP Programming Eli Lehrer spoke with Deadline about the History’s scripted strategy and the symbiotic relationship between its scripted and unscripted shows. He also addressed the glut of military dramas that followed the breakout success of Six, a possible Vikings end date and spinoffs/follow-up series and whether History would ever do a comedic scripted series.
DEADLINE: Now that A&E has left the scripted field, will you broaden the scope of History’s scripted series or will it stay on brand with mostly projects based on real events, real people?
LEHRER: One of the nice things about History as a brand, I think we have a competitive advantage in that scripted is very clearly defined. We’re looking for fact-based stories that draw from history, but that’s very broad because we have the full sweep of history to draw from. I don’t think you’re ever going to find history doing sitcoms or science fiction. There is such a wealth of stories to draw from that are right in our wheelhouse that I think as we expand our footprint in scripted we’re just going to continue to focus on those stories and go deeper.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that you’d never do sci-fi and yet you have Blue Book, which on paper sounds like a classic sci-fi series about UFOs.
LEHRER: The thing that makes Blue Book unique — and I think part of what makes what we can do in scripted unique — is that as opposed to something like The X Files, which is probably an easy comparison some people will make, Blue Book is based on the historical record. Obviously, there are some liberties we will take, but it is drawn from the real story of the U.S. Air Force’s investigation in the early ’50s into the UFO phenomena. Again, we feel like that’s something that’s part of our brand promise that not only will we create shows that are entertaining but, if we do our job well, we’ll provide you with a deeper understanding of these chapters in history.
DEADLINE: The subject matter of your scripted series span more than 1,000 years, from the Knights Templar and the Vikings to present times, with the contemporary military drama Six. How do you select which historic events to tackle in a scripted series format?
LEHRER: We’re open to any story that feels epic in scope and features iconic historical subject matter or characters. I think one of the nice things about History as a brand is we are able to use our unscripted track record to identify subjects and spaces that resonate with our viewers, and that’s part of what we did with Vikings. It’s part of what motivated Knightfall — we had seen the programming about the Knights Templar had continually worked for us. And that’s part of what motivated Six-– we’ve seen that Special Forces programming and military-themed programming in general have worked over the years in the unscripted space. So it felt like it was a core part of our brand and what we had been presenting to our viewers. It felt logical to take on that subject in the scripted space.
DEADLINE: Was there a link between any unscripted series you’ve done about Roswell and unexplained phenomenon that led to Blue Book?
LEHRER: That’s absolutely part of the same thought process. We’ve seen shows about UFOs and aliens work consistently on the channel across the years. Ancient Aliens is one of our longest-running and most successful shows, just to use one example. So it did feel like the subject of the unexplained is absolutely something that resonates with our audience, and once Blue Book came to us, it felt like a very logical place for the brand to go in the scripted space.
DEADLINE: After History’s Six came out, three other military drama series were launched by the broadcast networks, NBC’s The Brave, CBS’ SEAL Team and the CW’s Valor. What did you think about the increased competition in the space?
LEHRER: I suppose it was flattering. I think we took pride in the idea that we got there first and that there were a number of critics who recognized that Six had done it at a very high level. We were obviously very proud of its success, that it was the second-highest-rated scripted premiere in cable, and we’re very excited about Season 2 which is finishing production now. I think you always worry that a space will get saturated, but we really believe in the creative and vision of (Six co-creator) William Broyles Jr. and that team and are confident that they’ve made an even better second season. So we’re bullish on growing the show even more.
DEADLINE: With A&E going unscripted, will History increase the volume of its scripted portfolio? Will you get to a point where an original scripted series will be on the air at any time during the year?
LEHRER: I think the hope is by next fall you’ll see us with four scripted series in production: Vikings, Six, Knightfall which premieres this week, and Blue Book which will be on the air in 2018, as well as the limited series. I think the focus is really on getting Knightfall and Blue Book to be as successful as Vikings and Six and to make the limited series like The Breach a regular occurrence. We’ll go from there.
What’s interesting about History is, there aren’t many cable channels that have managed to succeed in both the scripted and the unscripted spaces — I think you can probably count them on one hand. This channel has been very thoughtful and selective about how we expand our footprint into this space since Nancy first got us into scripted with Hatfields & McCoys in 2012. I think we’re on that level with Vikings and Six and hopefully a third with Knightfall after this week. My hope is that it’s now clear to the production community and to our audience that we’re fully committed to being a premium scripted destination and a worthy home for the best historically based projects that are out there.
DEADLINE: Since you have both scripted and unscripted programming on the air, are you thinking about doing more unscripted tie-ins for your scripted series, like after-shows? And since unscripted shows have inspired you to pursue some of your scripted series, would you commission unscripted series on the same subject to be paired or run around your scripted series?
DEADLINE: I wouldn’t call them after-shows in the traditional sense but we’ve certainly found that when a viewer comes to us for a show like Six they’re often interested — whether it’s before the scripted premiere or after — in watching non-fiction programming on a similar topic. We saw a good amount of success around Six last season with other Navy SEAL-themed documentaries and programming, and we’re doing some of that with Knights Templar programming to go around Knightfall in the next few months. Certainly with Season 2 of Six, I would expect us to do additional military-themed programming because as I mentioned that is something that has traditionally worked for us even independent of scripted premieres.
DEADLINE: Besides potential new installments of The Commanders, there has only been one other project in development that has been announced, Travis Fimmel’s Wyatt Earp anthology series. Do you have others in the works?
LEHRER: We’re just starting up a new development cycle. We’ve identified subjects and spaces that feel exciting and interesting and unexplored to us, so we’re very much in the process of refilling the scripted series pipeline. That is a huge focus for our scripted team in the coming months.
DEADLINE: If that development leads to series green lights, will you go beyond four scripted series on the air?
DEADLINE: With Vikings on the air for so long, you must be thinking about potential spinoffs or companion series since it’s such a vast world. At one point, the Vikings story will end, and it’s a good idea to create a franchise.
LEHRER: I think Michael Hirst is so busy writing the episodes that we’ve ordered that I can’t imagine he’s had time to think about spinning it off. So the answer is, at this point, we haven’t had conversations about anything beyond how can we get more episodes of Vikings itself. (Series creator Hirst writes every episode of Vikings, which has been producing 20 episodes a season in its most recent Seasons 4 and 5.) It’s a monumental undertaking but he does it with a shocking degree of ease and equanimity.
DEADLINE: Have you thought about an end game or date for the show?
LEHRER: I think only Michael knows where it’s going to end and how it’s going to end at this point.
DEADLINE: You mentioned you would never do a comedy, but there’s a way to do a comedic take on history, like Monty Python for example. It’s a little different, but is a comedic take on history something that you would rule out?
LEHRER: I think we’ve always infused humor into some of our unscripted shows. I’m just not sure a comedic take on history is necessarily what the audience is coming to us for, which is not to say I don’t love Monty Python or Mel Brooks’ History of the World, but I don’t know if we’re the best platform for that kind of programming.