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Breaking Down HATFIELDS & MCCOYS’ Record-Breaking Performance
Kevin Costner leads 14 million horses to water, and then makes them drink.
There are a few different ways to perceive the success of the History Channel’s three part mini-series, Hatfields & McCoys, which now holds the record for most-viewed entertainment program in the history of ad-supported cable television. The finale episode brought in over 14 million viewers, supplanting the previous record-holder, Crossfire Trail, which aired on TNT in 2001.
Westerns, as a genre, have historically performed very well on American television, particularly when billed as “event” television. The all-time standard bearer continues to be Lonesome Dove, which was broadcast on CBS in 1989 to a staggering 26 million viewers. Both Lonesome Dove and Hatfields & McCoys sported top shelf (for TV) leading men, while also coming from highly popular source material, and both series benefitted from a full-court marketing press. TV spots, magazine ads, billboards, and in the case of Hatfields & McCoys, omnipresent banners on pretty much any entertainment-related website that you might have happened to click on over the past three months.
I’m of the opinion that the biggest part of the visibility of Hatfield & McCoys was due to the involvement of Kevin Costner. Costner, in spite of everything, is still an American icon, and probably the biggest star to “step down” from movies to television since Duvall played the lead in Lonesome Dove. He also has a rep for putting out solid Westerns, in particular, Dances With Wolves and Wyatt Earp. And sure, the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys has captured the imagination of the American public for a good many years, but if you replace Costner with, say, Peter Coyote, then we’re probably not discussing this at all.
That the program aired on the History Channel is also worthy of note. It tells me that you can now draw an audience pretty much anywhere on the “dial” if you have product. I realize the History Channel has come a long way since starting out as the place to watch P-51 Mustangs crash into the sea. Despite it’s regular offerings of all-things-apocalyptic, it is still the History Channel, and even five years ago, the thought of it registering a blip on the ratings radar would have been unthinkable.
So the bottom line is, in the new upside-down of entertainment television programming, pretty much any cable network has a chance to pull in an audience with the proper vehicle and the proper promotion. The only question now is how long it will take Oprah to get Tyler Perry to produce a Western for OWN.