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How 'Hatfields and McCoys' became cable's biggest-ever hit

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As the broadcast networks have increasingly relied on comedies and reality shows, cable has been leading the way into high-production value series, with big-name stars and budgets, beginning with HBO’s ”The Sopranos.” Since then, AMC’s “Mad Men,” TNT’s “The Closer,” and Showtime’s “The Tudors” have continued to escalate the trend. Showtime’s “The Borgias,” starred Jeremy Irons and the recently canceled racing drama “Luck” was directed by Martin Scorsese and featured Dustin Hoffman

But while most of these series have been critical darlings, nabbing Emmys and Golden Globes, most also have suffered from ratings anemia. At the same time as “Mad Men” has been garnering top drama Emmys, it has languished with no more than some 4 million viewers. This ratings and critical home run for History demonstrates an approach that has been steadily redefining the TV landscape for the past dozen years, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. 

What these niche channels – from HBO to Bravo to AMC – have done is use one hit to leverage the rest of the programming schedule. “Nobody had a clue where Bravo was until everyone wanted to watch ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,’ ” says Professor Thompson. “Then they made the effort and found the channel on their dial, and the channel was able to promote the living daylights out of the rest of their shows.” 

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