Meet the History channel’s kinder, gentler “Vikings”


NEW YORK — Have the Vikings gotten a bum rap?

At least according to popular imagination, they were fearsome barbarians in horned helmets who pillaged their way across Northern Europe during the Dark Ages. And while it’s true these seafaring Norsemen were hardly a bunch of peaceniks, the new History scripted series “Vikings” will attempt to bring some nuance to the caricature of the bearded brutes when it premieres Sunday night.

“The great thesis is, ‘You think you know the Vikings, but you don’t,” said series creator Michael Hirst.

The series represents uncharted territory in more ways than one: At 10 episodes, it will be History’s first full-length, scripted program, arriving on the heels of the massively successful miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” and accompanying the debut of the channel’s new miniseries “The Bible.”

“Vikings” marks the latest step in History’s dramatic makeover in recent years from a stodgy and largely irrelevant channel that played a seemingly infinite loop of WWII documentaries to a top-5 cable network and industry trendsetter.

As the screenwriter of the film “Elizabeth” and all 38 episodes of the cable series “The Tudors,” Hirst has a knack for bringing epic historical tales vividly to life. His latest series, set in the late 8th-century Scandinavia, will join a rather short list of sympathetic pop cultural depictions of the Viking people.

“They’re always ‘the other.’ They’re the guys who smash down your door and ravish and kill you and take your possessions — perpetual bad guys,” Hirst said by telephone from his home in England.

Of course, a brave and hunky protagonist can make any number of sins more palatable to the contemporary viewer. Vikings” has Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Norse hero who led raids on France and England. Played here by Australian actor and former Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel, Ragnar is a visionary family man who clashes with ruthless tribal leader Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) over his plan to explore the uncharted waters to the west.

“It’s like any other drama: the first rule is to get you involved in the characters. They don’t have to be nice, they have to be powerful and they have to be compulsively watchable,” Hirst said.

Hirst took pains to emphasize the Vikings’ positive contributions to Western civilization; their rich mythology and surprisingly progressive gender politics — who knew? — all figure prominently in the series, which was filmed over five months at the brand-new Ashford Studios in County Wicklow, Ireland.

For Nancy Dubuc, president of entertainment and media for A&E Networks, scripted content has been a dream since she took over the reins at History in 2007.

“We can’t be the well-rounded and powerful brand that we are without bringing this form of storytelling to our network,” she said. “But I also believed very firmly that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it to win, not just to play,” she said.

Dubuc’s first big move at the network was greenlighting the reality series “Ice Road Truckers.” When that became a hit, she added a spate of male-skewing, nonscripted series centered on adventurous, eccentric subjects: “Pawn Stars,” set in a Las Vegas pawn shop; “Top Gear,” an adaptation of a hugely popular British automotive show; and “Swamp People,” about alligator hunters in the Louisiana bayou.

The rebranding led many to remark on the network’s increasingly liberal interpretation of the word “history,” but the proof is in the pudding: History has seen six straight years of ratings growth, with a prime-time audience that now averages 2 million viewers.

In 2012 it was home to three of the top-20-rated shows in cable (“Pawn Stars,” “American Pickers” and “Swamp People”), and it is also the No. 1 entertainment network in cable among men ages 25 to 54, a population that tends to be underserved in the female-centric world of basic cable.

“They’ve found a really great niche as a place where advertisers can reach men really easily that isn’t sports,” said Ethan Heftman, senior vice president and director of national broadcast at the media-buying firm Initiative.

History made its first, ill-fated attempt at scripted television with “The Kennedys,” the $30-million miniseries that was yanked after a chorus of complaints and later aired on the obscure Reelz channel. The brouhaha was quickly forgotten thanks to “Hatfields & McCoys,” which became the highest-rated broadcast in the history of ad-supported cable when it aired last spring, attracting an audience of 14.3-million viewers for its finale. The miniseries also earned critical praise, racking up 16 Emmy nominations and two wins.

Revenue has surged accordingly. History brought in a total of $823 million in advertising and licensing fees in 2012, an improvement of nearly $100 million over 2011, according to the research firm SNL Kagan.

Numbers like that explain why History isn’t the only successful cable network diversifying its lineup these days. Bravo, known for its glossy reality shows about the affluent and narcissistic, is pushing aggressively into the scripted arena with some half-dozen pilots in development. Meanwhile AMC, home to critical darlings “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” is moving in the opposite direction with a Thursday-night reality block.

“The less expensive, nonscripted stuff helps you build your ratings. The scripted stuff helps you build your brand,” Heftman said.

History was attracted to “Vikings” — initially developed by MGM Television and the Irish producer Morgan O’Sullivan _ largely because of its self-explanatory premise.

“Something we think about when we’re looking at all of our scripted projects is ‘Can you put up a billboard and get it right away?”” said Dick Hoogstra, senior vice president of development and production at History. “We like it when the marketing doesn’t have to explain too much.”

With its wintry climes and characters decked out in leather tunics and shaggy fur capes, “Vikings” has perhaps inevitably invited comparisons to HBO’s fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” The projects share a preoccupation with medieval hygiene and bloody decapitations, but there are some notable differences — namely, the constraints of basic cable.

“When I was writing ‘The Tudors,’ there was a certain amount of gratuitous stuff which has now gone bonkers in a lot of cable shows. Every scene starts with semi-naked women. With History, of course, the rules are different,” Hirst said.

“Vikings” is also limited, if only slightly, by historical reality. Hirst can humanize the Vikings all he wants, but he can’t entirely whitewash their more unflattering qualities, such as their overt hostility to Christianity (an early episode features a brutal raid on a Nothrumbrian monastery). This will make for some interesting contrasts on Sunday nights, when “Vikings” airs following “The Bible.”

In many ways, “Vikings” is a more obvious fit with the History brand — or at least with the lower-case “h” concept of history — than the network’s roster of contemporary reality shows. What’s less clear, however, is the common thread between “Vikings” and, say, “Big Rig Bounty Hunters.”

And that’s just fine with Dubuc: “That’s the nice thing about our programming — not every show is connected. When you do that you end up with a prime-time schedule that’s very derivative of itself.”