Insights

The effect of racial diversity in the success of period dramas

24 September, 2021

Period dramas are ever-popular because they appeal to an idealized nostalgia inside us. We love following the lives of characters that are so transcendent, they seem immortal to us.  However, such idealization has allowed period dramas to curtail contemporary social issues. 

For a long time, period dramas weren’t expected to discuss issues of race or proactively participate in diverse casting. ITV’s Downton Abbey started airing in 2010 when most mainstream shows already included minimal diversity in the cast. Although beloved, the classic period show received criticism for its lack of racial diversity. At the time, a producer of the show justified the lack of diversity by arguing that the U.K wasn’t multi-cultural at that period, therefore having diverse characters wouldn’t be realistic.

However, as discourse on race has progressed over the years, representation in period dramas has also evolved. Although some shows still stick to a “realistic” approach, a recent wave of period releases with an adventurous take on representation is demonstrating that realism is not the only pathway to success.

In this article, we will look at the performance recent period shows, taking close attention to The Pulse metrics. By comparing inclusive and non-inclusive shows, we aim to find the advantages of having diverse representation. Furthermore, we will only include period shows that are explicitly set in a specific period of the past.

We will be mainly looking at three scores from The Pulse: Reach, Demand and Travelability. Firstly, Reach refers to the all-time amount of unique users demonstrating demand for a title. Next, Demand calculates the interest expressed for a title across all platforms worldwide in the past 12 months. Lastly, Travelability indicates the popularity of a show beyond its native market in the past 12 months. By comparing Reach and Demand, we can have an idea of the intensity of interest in a title, while Travelability can tell us about the potential cultural diversity of its audience. 

From Downton Abbey to Bridgerton

It’s fair to say that Downton Abbey was the most popular period show of its time: it was a huge success with audiences and received multiple Emmys. Although the show has been finished for six years, we can use recent demand data for it as a reference for current shows.

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Looking at The Pulse metrics for this classic series, we find that Downton Abbey has a high Reach index: 10.4x the average. Although it ended in 2015, the show still recorded 12.7x the average in the past 12 months. Finally, Downton Abbey recorded 13.3x the average Travelability index.

Similarly to Downton Abbey, Netflix’s Bridgerton is the most popular ongoing period drama. The show that was released in 2020 is set during the Regency era and attracted attention for its race-blind casting. It’s the second most popular period debut of the last year, behind only The Queen’s Gambit miniseries, which is already wrapped up.

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Looking at The Pulse metrics, we find Bridgerton performs differently from Downton Abbey in some areas. For instance, it has a lower Reach metric, 3.6x the average, probably for being a recent release with just one season so far. Yet, Bridgerton is wildly popular, recording an outstanding demand rate of 19.9x the average. Furthermore, the Travelability index for the show is soaring high, at 41.1x the average.

When it comes to the top markets for each show, we find some disparities. Downton Abbey has the highest demand in English-speaking countries like the U.S, Canada and New Zealand, and European countries. Meanwhile, the top markets for Bridgerton include Brazil, India, the Philippines, South Africa and Kenya. 

The White Queen trilogy: a case study

As seen in the comparison between Bridgerton and Downton Abbey, there seemed to be a particularly big gap in Travelability. The reason for the gap could be that diversity has a bigger appeal to international audiences. To investigate this theory further, let’s look at The White Queen trilogy.

Based on Philippa Gregory's historical novel series The Cousins' War, the television trilogy consists of BBC One’s The White Queen, Starz’ The White Princess and The Spanish Princess. The first two series featured mainly white characters, while the last one showcased a racially diverse cast.

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Looking at their Pulse measurements, we find some interesting gaps.

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The White Queen recorded 2.3x in both Reach and Demand, while The White Princess recorded 2.1x in Reach and 2.4x in Demand. Furthermore, the former recorded 0.9x the average in Travelability, while the latter recorded 1.2x. Although these are satisfactory results, they are lower than the numbers achieved by The Spanish Princess.

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The final series of the trilogy registered 2.4x the average in Reach and 8.3x in Demand. Meanwhile, the Travelability score was much higher than the other shows. The Spanish Princess recorded 5.2x the average in Travelability.

Again, we can see that the most diverse show scored the highest Travelability rate. Moreover, The Spanish Princess isn’t alone in this achievement, as we see this pattern with other shows.

Anne With An E and Harlots

Finding diverse period shows that score high in Travelability isn’t hard. In fact, with the increasing number of new releases featuring better racial representation, there are a lot of additions to this pattern.

Two shows that fit right into the pattern are Netflix’s Anne With An E and Hulu’s Harlots. Thematically, they’re worlds apart: the Netflix original is set in the 1890s and portrays the coming of age story of an orphan girl. Meanwhile, Harlots follows a family of prostitutes in 18th century England. Despite the differences, the shows share one feature in common: both were cancelled in their third season.

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Looking at The Pulse metrics for Anne with An E, we find that the Reach index of the show is 6.3x the average, while the demand for the show in the past 12 months is 9x the average. Anne With An E also demonstrates incredible Travelability, with an index rate of 16.6x the average. Among the top markets for the show are Brazil, Mexico and India. 

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Meanwhile, for Harlots, we find that the Reach index of the show is 3.2x the average, while the demand is 4.4x the average. While Harlots records an average  Travelability index of 1.9x, the show is the most popular in a unique market. Notably, China, South Africa, India, Israel and Singapore are among the top markets of the show.

What about less diverse shows?

Despite the significant progress in recent years, there are still period shows that have mostly white characters. The performance of such shows has varied: some have garnered average demand, while others have performed outstandingly.

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ITV’s Victoria is one of the shows that has earned an average demand rate. The series portrays the early life of the former Queen of the United Kingdom. The Reach index of the show is 5.4x the average, while the demand is 3.2x the average. The show doesn’t have high Travelability, registering a score of just 1.2x the average. Furthermore, the top markers for the series are mostly European countries or English-speaking countries.

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Meanwhile, History’s Vikings and Netflix’s The Last Kingdom subvert the trend. Both shows tell the story of the Norse invasion of Britain - the former from the Viking perspective and the latter from the British perspective. In the name of historical accuracy, neither show has racial minorities in the cast. Despite this, they have outstanding demand performance.

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Vikings records 62x in the Reach index and 39.7x in Demand. The Travelability score of the show is 67.6x the average, an exceptional result. In tandem, The Last Kingdom records 14.4x in Reach and 18.2x in Demand. The Travelability score of the show is 31.6x the average.

While there seems to be a connection between racial diversity and better Travelability, the success of Vikings and The Last Kingdom demonstrates that other factors come into play to be an internationally successful show.

At the same time, the popularity of the new flow of period series proves that historical accuracy isn’t the most important element. Audiences are interested in imaginative retellings of the past, like Bridgerton, and the stories of marginalized groups, like Harlots. Expanding the horizon of which stories can and should be told is the key to success.

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