Following the successful end-runs of popular and critically-acclaimed HBO programs the Sopranos, Sex and the City, and The Wire, speculation ran rampant in the television industry about how the pay-TV channel was losing its touch. Looking to find innovative programming to bring the channel back to prominence, HBO grabbed a foothold in producing historical epics, inadvertently turning itself into the new History Channel.
The programming sea change began meteorically last year with the airing of two critically-acclaimed historic mini-series. John Adams, starring actor Paul Giamatti as the second American president, gave a unique glimpse into the first 50 years of the United States, eventually winning 13 Emmys, including Outstanding Mini-Series, and four Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture Made for Television. Its awe-inspiring success was almost matched by Recount, a mini-series documenting the 2000 presidential election’s Florida recount, which in its own right won three Emmys and a Golden Globe. The popularity of both mini-series on DVD led to two other 2009 historical epics, House of Saddam and Into the Storm, which recreated the lives of Saddam Hussein and Winston Churchill respectively. While they haven’t proved as popular as their predecessors, they still provided production value not common to these types of films.
While both Saddam and Storm were nominated for 2009 Emmys, neither was nominated for Outstanding Mini-Series, a two-series competition featuring HBO’s Iraq War saga Generation Kill. With the Tom Hanks-Steve Spielberg-produced World War II series The Pacific coming in 2010, HBO refuses to shy away from the historical epic format. They’ve already announced a new production, The Special Relationship, which will spotlight President Bill Clinton (to be played by Dennis Quaid) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (who will be portrayed for the third time by actor Michael Sheen). The screenplay, courtesy of Oscar-nominated scribe Peter Morgan, should only further up the production value.
Meanwhile, the actual History Channel hasn’t done much to justify its namesake. Its top-rated show, Ice Road Truckers, has nothing to do with historic events or figures.
With the History Channel invested in reality programming, HBO is clearly looking to become the channel of record when it comes to documenting epic moments in history.