Kevin Costner as Devil Anse Hatfield in "Hatfields & McCoys." (Kevin Lynch / History )
If Emmys were given out for underdog TV projects that appeared to be an expensive, risky gamble, it would be hard to beat History's "Hatfields & McCoys."
Executive producer Leslie Greif had tried for 30 years to bring his passion project to fruition, with endless rejection from studios and networks. Its miniseries format had been largely abandoned by networks, and its massive scale, historic setting in a remote part of the country and western-movie overtones were considered out of vogue with younger, hip audiences, particularly when juxtaposed against flashier modern fare such as HBO's "Girls" or even the stylish retro flavor of "Mad Men."
In addition, History had little experience with scripted programming, with its first scripted drama, "The Kennedys," derailed after drawing extensive controversy. The timing of "Hatfields & McCoys," which ran over Memorial Day weekend, was questioned by industry insiders who said audiences would be too busy with holiday-related activities to tune in.
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But instead of faltering, "Hatfields & McCoys" evolved into one of TV's most triumphant success stories this year. The miniseries drew a record 13.9 million viewers in its premiere — a new plateau for an entertainment show on ad-supported cable television — and actually increased its viewership over a three-night run. Now the show, which starred Kevin Costner as Devil Anse Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, patriarchs of the brutal Appalachian families who fought just after the Civil War, has become one of the marquee attractions of this year's prime-time Emmys with 16 nominations, the most in the network's history, including for miniseries or movie and for Costner and Paxton in that genre's lead actor race.
The nomination windfall left the stars and producers of "Hatfields & McCoys" alternately reeling and celebrating.
"I have to be honest, this is a thrill, this is really great," said Costner by phone from his tour bus. The Oscar winner is traveling with his band, which played a date in Jackson, Miss., as they tour in support of their album, "Famous for Killing Each Other," which includes music from "Hatfields & McCoys."
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Although Costner realized that the project didn't automatically have what might be considered more marketable elements, he had little doubt that it would connect with an audience. "When I first read it, I knew it had a chance to be classic if we did what was written," he said. "I wasn't surprised when it turned out that people liked it, but I was surprised when I learned it was this phenomenal."
Analysts said the series performed well in "red state" regions of the South and the heartland, where viewers may be attracted to more conventional brands of fare such as westerns. Surprisingly, almost as many women tuned in as men: 45% of the audience was female.
Paxton said that despite the odds, "Hatfields & McCoys" struck a nerve. "It's one of those things that caught the zeitgeist of the nation," he said. "It's like a few other things I've been involved with like 'Titanic' or 'Tombstone.' Like those stories, everyone knew the term, but not the story."
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Paxton added, "I'm delighted to have all these nominations, and I think it bodes well for the miniseries form."
History's next foray in scripted programming is "Vikings," slated to air in spring.
Greif, chief executive of Thinkfactory Media, who gleefully declared himself "the proud dad" of "Hatfields & McCoys," said the number of nominations made the long struggle he endured to realize the project "all worth it. With the ratings and acceptance and recognition of our peers, this is a dream come true."
Mare Winningham, nominated for supporting actress in a miniseries or movie, added, "On the page, 'Hatfields & McCoys' doesn't make much sense. But we had a trifecta — Kevin, Leslie and History. They were sure this was the greatest idea. And they were right."
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