The Rise of 'Rome'; HBO's New TV Series Wasn't Built in a Day
Thomas, Dana, Newsweek International
Byline: Dana Thomas
Niobe, the wife of one of Caesar's soldiers, wanders down a crowded cobblestone passage in the filthy, overcrowded slums of ancient Rome to make amends with her scorned sister, Lyde, a butcher. Their disagreement, naturally, is over a man. The market heaves with activity--hawkers sell live chickens, rabbits and partridges--as Niobe reaches out to touch Lyde's arm. Lyde recoils in anger and runs to the back of her shop. "Cut!" yells Steve Shill, one of the half-dozen rotating directors of "Rome," the sprawling new HBO-driven television series set in 52 to 44 B.C., now wrapping up filming at the famed Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. The slums are part of a gigantic set built on two hectares and in six soundstages--the largest in Cinecitta's history--that also includes replicas of the Forum, the Senate, the Temple of Jupiter and even the facade of Alexandria Harbor in Egypt. "The scale is enormous and incredibly ambitious," says Frank Doelger, one of the show's executive producers. "HBO wanted to create what Rome looked, felt and smelled like and how people lived their lives. We're trying to break away from the historical pageant or stuffiness of typical epics."
With its astounding $100 million budget, cast of relative unknowns and multinational production team, "Rome" is breaking the rules of television, too. The onslaught of digital and Web television has caused a steep decline in viewership for networks and major cable channels all over the world. "Television is spread out across so many channels now that it is getting more difficult to get people to tune in to a regular weekly series," says Adrian Edwards, consultant for DGA Metrics, a media-research company in London. "Because of that, there is a movement toward big-event programming--shows that get a lot of hype which draws audiences to tune in."
"Rome" should be a good lure. When writers Bill MacDonald and John Milius first proposed the story--about two soldiers in Caesar's 13th legion, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo--as a mini-series to HBO back in 1998, the pay-cable network's executives immediately saw a larger potential: they commissioned the first 12 episodes as well as an outline for a possible five-year run. Eventually the BBC and Italy's RAI joined in, recognizing the project's global appeal. The one-hour weekly series is scheduled to air on HBO in the United States in early fall and on the BBC a few weeks later; other markets--including Italy, France, Germany and Australia--will follow. …