WTFrock Is Happening With Historical Drama These Days?


Everybody in Hollywood wants a hit. That’s not new. Even when the definition of “Hollywood” has been stretched in 2018 to include global media platforms on any size screen, on any device, produced by anyone who has the money to create movies and TV. No longer do traditional movie studios control the means of entertainment, or even TV networks or cable channels in the U.S., U.K., and Europe, now technology companies like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and whatever startup around the world can make a play for eyeballs. And when one of them has a hit, the other scramble.

cat chasing red dot

Back in 2015, critics and reviewers were saying we had hit “peak TV” with so many high-quality yet niche television shows across all these mediums. This was supposed to be a good thing — you could find a little something for everyone among all the scripted series, whether it was Transparent on Amazon or The Mindy Project on Hulu. Niche subjects and long-ignored audiences could find their own fabulous TV shows, and writers, producers, and actors who had previously struggled to survive in one-size-fits-all Hollywood flourished.  A side-effect has been more historical costume series being made as well, because interesting stories are worth being told in any time or place, right? Well, maybe.

For a while now, we have seen a TON more costume dramas — and even historical comedies! — on TV, including shows produced by not-the-usual suspects. Instead of just ye olde British imports showing up on PBS Masterpiece like 20 years ago, we’ve seen cable, network channels, and streaming services all produce period pieces. Starz created everything from Da Vinci’s Demons to Outlander to The White Princess; the History Channel made Vikings; Lifetime did The Lizzie Borden Chronicles; Netflix poured money into Marco Polo; BET showed The Book of Negroes; Comedy Central gave us Drunk History and Another Period; the CW did Labyrinth and, of course, Reign; Cinemax had The Knick; Spike TV aired Tut; Amazon tried Casanova, The Last Tycoon, and Z: The Beginning of Everything; AMC created TURN: America’s Spies; WGN had Salem and Underground; Hulu produced Harlots; that’s not all, and it doesn’t even count the historical shows HBO and Showtime continued to crank out in the past five or so years.

However, the eternal desire for a big hit might have just overwhelmed the idea of peak TV after all. At least for Amazon, and who knows who else will follow. Call it the Game of Thrones Effect — Jeff Bezos does. He’s the CEO of Amazon, and he has demanded a giant fucking hit show for his streaming video network. At the end of 2017, he canceled a bunch of one-season-old Amazon series (including historicals The Last Tycoon and Z: The Beginning of Everything, the later had been green-lighted for a second season a week earlier). The reasoning for these cancelations was that Bezos needs a big, global Game of Thrones style hit for his platform. But there a lot of problems with that idea.

Tim Gunn - This concerns me

Most of them are obvious — hey, did you know that summer 2017 had the worst movie box-office sales in for-fucking-ever? Do you know why? How about titles like The Emoji Movie? Funny how people don’t like to watch shitty stories. Pander down to an audience with crap, and we won’t watch. DUH. It’s even more difficult with TV series, because they aren’t one-offs, they need to build an audience slowly. Many, many mega-successful TV series had a rocky start. For example, most everyone agrees that Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s first season sucks.

Even comparing to Game of Thrones, it had a modest start. Season one averaged 2.52 million viewers per episode in 2011. Buffy got a “low” of 2.5 million viewers per episode on average for its first season in 1997. These numbers are U.S. only, and today, the viewing market is considered more fragmented because people have access to more network and cable TV channels, plus streaming and Internet services. The GoT season 7 finale in August 2017 had 12.1 million viewers, the most ever for that show, so obviously it took a while to build up. The last season averaged 10.26 million viewers per episode.

In our frock flicks world, let’s look at the biggest historical hit in recent times, Downton Abbey. Again, I’m going to use American ratings numbers both because that’s how we roll and so we’ll have more apples to apples comparison. Also, and I don’t say this with any pride but more a sense of resignation, American media and technology are a dominant force that are pushing a lot of these stupid trends, so any analysis has to start with U.S. numbers and then add the global ones on top of that (sorry for our cultural imperialism, even when talking about an imported show). ANYWAY.

Edith - Downton Abby - Why does everything have to be complicated?

In 2012, season two of Downton Abbey averaged 5.4 million viewers per episode, seemingly small, but for PBS, huge audiences that hadn’t been seen on the channel since 2009. It blossomed quickly. By season three in 2013, Downton Abbey had become the most watched PBS series of all-time, with an average audience of 11.5 million across the seven-week run. Hey, that’s less than a certain dragon-filled blockbuster’s average in its best season. Then Downton‘s series finale, March 2016, was down to 9.6 million viewers in the U.S., although the final season opener had a few more at 9.9 million. Still, pretty respectable for a niche genre show

That’s something we need to understand here, and I wish Jeff Bezos and his ilk would understand. Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, all of these are niche genre TV shows. They are not mainstream. They are not for everyone. Again, this is what peak TV was about, creating small shows for different niches, not one big show for everyone in the world.

Rocky Horror Picture Show - I didn't make him for you

More numbers here (sorry if your eyes are glazing over, but this is how I make a point). The very top shows in both Downton Abbey‘s biggest year and GoT‘s biggest? The same one, NCIS, a standard-issue police procedural, airing on CBS. In the 2013 season, NICS averaged 21.34 million viewers per episode, and in the 2017 season, it averaged 14.63 million. Ups and downs, but still easily wiping the floor with our wacky little shows about fantasy places and people who lived in ye olden times.

Since little niche genre shows aren’t the real competitors here, why the hell are Jeff Bezos and company fucking with them?!?! (See? I had a point, I got there!)

Hocus Pocus - dost thou comprehend?

But I guess I’m the only one nerding out over the actual numbers, because Amazon has killed its public pilot season where experimental series by small producers were aired and viewers got to vote on them. Similarly, the fall 2018 lineup for network TV suggests they’re taking little to no risks on new genre shows. I’ve been complaining for months at our upcoming movies and TV list is getting shorter and weaker as well.

Now we’re back to waiting for our favorite niche — historical costume TV — mostly being produced by the same old sources that produced shows 20+ years ago: PBS or someone based outside the United States. Or both. For example, most everything historical that Amazon has right now or coming up has been coproduced by British TV.  Britannia is an Amazon-Sky creation, and the upcoming Vanity Fair miniseries is being made by ITV with Amazon funding. Then there’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, wholly produced by Australia’s Foxtel and merely distributed worldwide by Amazon.

Netflix has done a little bit better for original programing in the frock flicks vein. It’s big hit (especially with the critics and awards) has been The Crown, which the streaming service coproduced with Sony Pictures. Maybe that makes up for Netflix sinking a ton of money into the stinker that was Marco Polo. The channel has also coproduced the Spanish-language historical series Cable Girls, and the American western Godless, while distributing the Canadian production Anne, aka Anne With an E. So I guess you get an “E” for effort, Netflix.

The Crown - stop it

But where are the long-running historical costume series on TV? Right where they’ve always been. Public-mother-fucking-broadasting, people. Keep sending in your pledges, because PBS funding is  forever on Congress’ chopping block. 75% of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s federal appropriation goes to local TV stations (the rest goes to radio and stuff), meaning your PBS station depends on that money to buy weekly eps of British shows like Victoria, Poldark, and The Durrells in Corfu, plus one-offs like Little Women and To Walk Invisible.

PBS Masterpiece also coproduces historical shows with ITV (that’s how the world got Downton Abbey, Mr. Selfridge, and Victoria) and the BBC (such as the upcoming The Miniaturist). Really, the supposed brave new world of streaming and digital on-demand content everywhere Peak TV hasn’t changed much for us frock flicks fans. We will still find the most and best historical costume dramas in the same places, from the same producers as we did 20 or 40 years ago.

Poldark - allow a master to initiate you in the pleasures
Let the money men chase after an elusive big hit. They’re being short-sighted. Meanwhile, musty old American public broadcasting, with an assist from the Brits, will keep cranking out legit frock flicks for us.



About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

10 Responses

  1. ljones1966

    I don’t think airing TV productions from the U.K. helps very much. The majority of them – but not all – seems rather mediocre to me. Including the highly popular “Downton Abbey”, “Poldark” and “Victoria”. Personally, I think the Golden Age of British period drama ended by the end of the last decade. And here in the U.S., I’m getting tired of promising period shows barely making it past their first or second seasons. It’s becoming almost the norm. Let’s face it . . . television period drama is not what it used to be on both sides of the Atlantic and for different reasons.

  2. Susan Pola Staples

    The article was both intelligent and thought provoking.
    I agree with your premise that PBS is, has been and will be the major source of ‘Frock TV’. And I, also, urge everyone that can afford it to contribute to their local PBS station. Especially now with a Nouveau riche uncultured idiot occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Are.

  3. Cecily

    What those execs miss is that niche shows are what people lose their sh*t over. People are fanatical about their thing, whether it be frock flick, fantasy or sci-fi. If it is done well people will buy everything to do with it (Merchandising! where the real money from the movie is made)

  4. picasso Manu

    Buffy season one? When she falls madly in love with the vampire/stalker/pedophile? one of those is scary enough not to get all three (what where we all thinking?). As for the rest, Jeff is not in it for art or even entertainment, but purely for the $$$. AND it has to sell globally. So, not taking risks, not having a vision, kill creativity right and left… Probably why we have remakes after remakes of stuff that came out only 20 years ago. I dunno, I thought the original ideas where the ones that set people on fire, but I’m obviously not working in the entertainment Industry. That bottom line is sacred stuff, baby… Just, in certain businesses, it can’t the end all or you shoot yourself in the foot. Oh, well, I have DVDS…

  5. revknits

    Agree with your premise. Appallingly, my local PBS station, KQED, has pretty much eliminated its own local broadcasting even though its one of the biggest stations viewer wise. They are moving to non-union labor for much of their non-broadcast work – podcasts, etc. So, even though I love the PBS commitment to the niche TV, unless they decide to pay livable wages via union jobs, they are not getting my support.

  6. Alys Mackyntoich

    I know it’s not a historical and therefore likely not on your radar, but Amazon just did invest in what may prove to be its Games of Thrones by buying the rights to continue the best sci fi on TV in the form of The Expanse.

    • Nzie

      I don’t know The Expanse, but many think that Amazon’s purchase of tv rights to Lord of the Rings is an attempt to have their own Game of Thrones.

  7. Charity

    If PBS dies, I assume the BBC will continue making costume dramas, and simply open them up for streaming in the US through a private streaming system (Brit Flicks?) or sell the rights to Netflix. But yes, if you want to see free bonnet flicks on television, PBS is the horse to bet on.

  8. Stella vG

    Good post! Bezos is kind of a douche anyway, so add this to the pile! Late last year Amazon got the rights to make a ‘Lord of the Rings prequel’ to contend with GoT, which I don’t think many LotR fans were too enthusiastic about.. On the whole I feel like more could be done with period tv shows, I feel like it’s usually 19th century book adaptations, something in the 20th century or something dark and gritty. All three are fine, but I’d love to see more variety in the subjects being chosen, but maybe that’s just me :P