Back in Time


Period dramas continue to enliven bygone eras with perennial stories and modern twists.

Past is prologue, as they say. And period dramas, set in the distant and not-too-distant past, color our understanding of both yesterday and today. The prologue of the present is perpetually relevant and endlessly relatable to modern television audiences. Fans of period drama still want to be transported through the past and its lessons under the guise of entertainment.

“Period drama is a staple and will always be in vogue,” says Moreyba Bidessie, A+E Networks’ director of international scripted development and sales. “There is a place for good stories, no matter what time period they are being told in. Good dramas transcend time periods.”

The very nature of history and its habit of repeating itself, according to Carlo Dusi, executive VP of commercial strategy for scripted at Red Arrow Studios International, “is a big inspiration, particularly with big period stories and historical dramas. The human condition is often more effectively examined when you can do so from a bit of a distance. Period provides you with that ability to step away from current events and look at both personal and individual themes of love, identity, personal growth and finding your place in society.”

Julia Matyash, the director of Sovtelexport, which represents Russia Television and Radio’s catalog, finds that “the choice between ultimate power and ordinary human life and the cost of such a choice” proves to be an enduring subject of fascination. “Most of us feel interested in powerful and rich people,” she says. “But we are most interested in how they managed to reach that life, which traits or talents made them so powerful.”

Timur Weinstein, general producer at NTV Broadcasting Company, says, “The mix of mystery, tragedy and romance wrapped in beautiful costumes and lavish settings certainly contributes to the genre’s popularity, but the main reason [for its popularity] is the insatiable human curiosity to experience different epochs and the unique ambiance of the old times.”

Aysegul Tuzun, managing director for Turkey’s Mistco, says, “When you give the audience the choice of watching a period drama, even if it is mostly fiction, audiences can get information about time periods and characters that are heroic in their culture or any other culture.” In addition to the 13th-century set Resurrection: Ertugrul, Mistco represents the epic The Last Emperor, based on the real-life story of Abdulhamid Han. “It doesn’t matter which culture or religion or period the series represents,” says Tuzun. “Even though period dramas are telling local stories, they are telling their stories with a global approach.”

Russia TV’s slate includes Ekaterina and Godunov, which take place in 18th-century and 16th-century Russia, exploring pivotal moments in the country’s ruling history. Matyash says, “We joke that Russia is a country with an unpredictable past. Today the same can be said about the rest of the world. As long as the past gives us the basis to understand, interpret and attribute to the present, the interest for period drama will constantly grow.”

As the demand for stories set decades and centuries ago remains healthy, the challenge lies in finding new ways to approach them.

“It’s about whether content creators can find ways to tell period stories that are innovative, different and fresh rather than whether there’s an appetite for period or not in the current market,” says Red Arrow’s Dusi. “I think as viewing tastes become more elevated, there’s pressure on all of us who generate and exploit content to come up with ideas and narrative styles that are distinctive.”

One way to reinvigorate the well-worn eras often visited in period drama is through hybrid series that dive back in time with a crime story at its center—or more daring yet—a bit of the fantastical. “The best period pieces are always a mix of fantasy, mystery and outstanding historical events that together create irresistible appeal and attract loyal viewership internationally,” says NTV’s Weinstein. “They all blend fantasy elements with universal themes on the background of transformative historical events.”

A+E’s Bidessie says, “Hybrids are great and can sometimes breathe new life into a tried and tested format. But like everything in drama, it’s always about the story; what it says to the audience, how it makes them feel and ultimately how it entertains them.” She adds that “music is also a great way to present the past.”

Enlivening history anew can come with a high cost. Commitment to accuracy is rarely going to come cheaply, according to Mistco’s Tuzun. “It is very costly to produce such a genre, as it requires reflecting the period perfectly,” she says. “The places, customs and even the smallest details are important to make a series successful, and if you cannot make the audiences believe what you did, it will directly affect the success of the series. But if it is a good and detailed production, it’s like magic and time-traveling for the audiences and you will manage to hook them.”

Can Okan, founder and CEO of Inter Medya, which distributes TIMS&B Productions’ period love story Bitter Lands, credits technology for improving the process of bringing to life stories set in the past. “Technology gives producers the ability to unlock greater opportunities to ensure more authentic period dramas,” he says. “Of course, a long pre-production process, as well as financial investments, are necessary to create original and high-quality period dramas that meet the audience’s expectations.”

The average cost of making period drama is rising in part because more players are willing to put more money into them.

“The bar has always been high, but with streamers and pay-TV channels now looking at period drama as a genre to commission, there are certainly richer production budgets now attached and with bigger stories that are perhaps not so focused on regionality,” observes Bidessie.

With all of their money and resources, Dusi adds, “The streamers’ invasion has given period drama an incredible injection and it’s broadened how period drama can be created.”

Content creators and broadcasters are also taking safer bets with known IP, with NTV’s Weinstein stating unequivocally that “epic novel adaptations undoubtedly have an advantage.” A+E’s Bidessie acknowledges that there remains a benefit to having a property with a built-in fanbase, but points out a known hazard. “With those fans comes an expectation too.”

But, as Red Arrow’s Dusi highlights, period dramas can take up that rare space of being known and familiar without incurring the risk of compromising a beloved novel, for instance, and irking its devout readers.

“History itself and known historical events are a form of pre-existing IP,” he says. “It might not be IP that you can buy like a novel, but there are known facts and known data that can bring that same element of familiarity to an audience.”

The key to finding the right window into the past is finding a window into the present. “It’s very important to be able to answer the fundamental question about why that particular period story may need to be told now,” he says. “It can be for entertainment, for escapism, or it could be because it provides a lens into modern-day issues that are important to discuss.”