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How Networks Are Breaking the Period-Piece Curse

12/12/2012 06:19:58 AM

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, Julian Fellowes who is Downton Abbey creator 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.

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