NEW YORK — History Channel President Nancy Dubuc knows what she’s up against running a cable television network devoted to events from long ago in an age of real-time tweets and quirky videos that go viral instantaneously.
“History, people automatically say, is black and white and fuddy-duddy,” she said matter-of-factly.
But not according to Dubuc. Since taking over History three years ago, the young executive has sought to recast the network in Technicolor. To do so, she’s undertaken a provocative strategy: severing the cable channel’s tether to the past.
Once referred to as “the Hitler channel” for its seemingly endless stream of dusty World War II documentaries, the network now crackles with modern-day adventures, many in the guise of unscripted shows so common now on television. Big-rig truckers brave the frozen tundra in “Ice Road Truckers,” while the brawny loggers of “Ax Men” dodge falling timber in the Pacific Northwest. History’s newest hit is “Pawn Stars,” a flashy “Antiques Roadshow” set in a Las Vegas pawnshop. This year, the network will introduce “Top Shot,” a reality contest that will pay $100,000 to the marksman who can best replicate the aim of Annie Oakley and other famous shots.
Even its more sober-minded specials have taken on contemporary topics, some still raw to recount. In its Emmy-winning 2008 documentary “102 Minutes That Changed America,” the network documented the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in real time through amateur footage. A companion piece, “9/12: The Day After,” is set to air this year.
Admirers praise Dubuc for injecting real life into a network that had largely been an afterthought in the industry. Top-tier television producers behind hits such as “Survivor” and “24” now vie to get their projects on History, which next year plans to air its first scripted drama. But the channel has had to tread carefully to avoid alienating the history enthusiasts that make up its base. And its insistence that programs set in the present day are still rooted in history has drawn scoffs from some competitors.
The evolution of History, which dropped “Channel” from its name in 2008 and added the tag line “History Made Every Day,” is one of the most dramatic makeovers of a cable network in recent years. In embracing reality shows, which are cheap to produce and humming with human drama, the cable channel has followed the tack taken by much of the television industry in the last decade.
“Viewers aren’t buying LPs anymore; they’re going to iTunes,” said Dubuc, 41, seated in her tastefully appointed Manhattan office. “It’s not fair to expect the person selling LPs not to embark on an iTunes strategy. You have to recognize what audiences are consuming. At its heart, we’re still telling historical stories,” she added, noting that the ice road tuckers and lumberjacks weave in stories about the past in explaining their professions. “We’re just telling them in a more innovative way.”
Some may take issue with the historical value of programs such as “UFO Hunters” and “Nostradamus Effect.” But there’s no question that Dubuc has blown the cobwebs out of a network that had been growing stagnant. History had its best ratings ever in 2009, averaging 1.18 million viewers in prime time, 3 percent over 2008’s record viewership, and made it into the top 10 basic cable channels in the key 25- to 54-year-old advertising demographic for the first time. During Dubuc’s tenure, the channel has launched its 10 highest-rated series and shaved four years off the median age of its viewers, now 48. And it narrowed the gap with competitors such as Discovery Channel and SyFy, which this year both averaged 1.2 million viewers in prime time.
That’s translated into real money. In 2009, History brought in an estimated $610 million in revenue from advertising and licensing fees, up from $513 million in 2006, according to the research firm SNL Kagan. The channel, owned by the A&E Television Networks — a joint venture of the Hearst Corp., the Walt Disney Co. and NBC Universal — has attracted sponsors such as Home Depot, Lexus and MillerCoors seeking to target its young male viewers.
Advertisers are impressed with how the network has pivoted, said Ethan Heftman, vice president and director of national broadcast for the media buying firm Initiative. “There definitely was some surprise when they entered the unscripted realm, but that’s what draws ratings,” he said. “It hasn’t gone trashy, but at the end of the day they’re realistic about what viewers want to see.”
In greenlighting personality-driven programs, Dubuc appears to have taken a page from the Discovery Channel, the flagship network of Discovery Communications, whose hit “Deadliest Catch” spawned an entire genre of testosterone-pumping reality shows. She brought on “Catch” producer Thom Beers to do “Ice Road Truckers” and its upcoming spinoff, “Extreme Trucking,” among other projects.
Dubuc shrugs off such comparisons. “No trend is ever going to be one network’s calling card,” she said. Still, she chafes at just being seen as the executive who brought reality shows to History. To begin with, she objects to the term, which she said is used out of “industry laziness,” preferring to describe History’s programs as “the next iteration of documentary storytelling.”
And History hasn’t lost its grounding, she insists. This past fall, the channel broadcast “WWII in HD,” a five-part series that incorporated little-before-seen color footage from the war, and “The People Speak,” a film based on Howard Zinn’s protest history book “A People’s History of the United States,” which featured dramatic renditions of historic documents by actors such as Matt Damon and Marisa Tomei.
Dubuc hopes to banish any questions about the network’s commitment to serious fare in April, when History makes its biggest and most expensive play yet: a 12-part series that will tackle the history of the United States from Jamestown to present day.
“America: The Story of Us” is being produced by Jane Root, a veteran British television executive who knows how to do epic television: She oversaw the launch of Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” when she ran that network. History is casting the project, inspired by the sense of momentousness that followed President Obama’s election, as the first comprehensive television history of the country since Alistair Cooke’s 1972 series “America: A Personal History of the United States.”
“I think it’s a sign of amazing confidence in themselves and the audience,” said Root, now an independent producer.
The project aims to explore the various tipping points that shaped the country’s trajectory, with each hour covering five events. Along with the usual interviews with historians, the series is making heavy use of CGI technology to re-create events such as the construction of the Statue of Liberty and the expansion of the railroad across the Rockies. “We want to tell it in a way that draws people in the way a movie would,” Dubuc said. “It’s OK to be entertaining.”
That’s been Dubuc’s motto since she took over the network. “If a 13-year-old listens to the Declaration of Independence because Matt Damon is reading it, then so what? At least they’ve listened to the Declaration of Independence,” she said.
Dubuc may seem an unlikely fit at a male-skewing network with a legacy of military programs. A stylish mother of two young children, she minored in history at Boston University and cheerfully confesses she wishes she had paid more attention in class.
“I didn’t necessarily come here as a history enthusiast, and I think we were all pretty open about that,” said Dubuc, who got her start in television working on PBS’ “This Old House” and originally joined History as a director of programming.
What she does have is an eye for hit shows, a skill she proved as the head of programming at History’s sister network A&E. In short order, she upended the staid channel with reality shows such as “Growing up Gotti” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”
“I look at her as sort of the network whisperer,” said Kevin Beggs, president of television programming and production for Lionsgate, who said History was not even on his radar until Dubuc took over. He now regularly talks to her about possible projects. “The shows she does are not wildly expensive but really loud, in a good way.”
One of Dubuc’s first moves at History when she arrived in 2007 was to order a report on the channel’s best-performing projects. After seeing the high ratings for an episode of “Modern Marvels” about ice road truckers, she immediately greenlighted a series based on the concept. The idea raised some eyebrows internally.
But A&E Television Networks Chief Executive Abbe Raven, Dubuc’s longtime mentor, said she was quickly persuaded that unscripted shows such as “Ice Road Truckers” would give History a fresh approach to old subjects. “If you look at the history of our country, it has really been about exploring and breaking into the new frontier,” Raven said. “This is not just about driving down a treacherous road. I think we’ll look back at these as early explorers.”
Competitors see that argument as a stretch. Clark Bunting, acting president and general manager of Discovery Channel and Science Channel, said he admires Dubuc’s success in expanding the network’s reach. But he said that widening the focus leaves an opening for rival networks, such as Discovery’s Military Channel, to steal what had been the channel’s niche.
“You can get to a place where you construe history to be whatever happened yesterday,” he said. “The goal is to give you scale, scope and perspective on important events. As entertaining as I find ‘Ice Road Truckers,’ I’m not sure what the relevance is.”
Still, History’s foray into reality doesn’t appear to have stirred much outcry in academic circles, in part because many historians said they’re realistic about the network’s constraints. “I think professional historians realize that this is a popular genre in a free-market situation,” said Kevin Starr, the noted California scholar, who said he sticks to the network’s traditional offerings. “It’s not PBS.”
But the changes haven’t gone unnoted in the creative community. Mark Burnett (“Survivor”) produced last spring’s “Expedition Africa,” which retraced Henry Morton Stanley’s journey through Africa, and is in conversations about doing other series with History.
Most recently, Dubuc joined forces with one of television’s hottest entertainment producers: Joel Surnow, co-creator of the Fox series “24,” who will produce an eight-hour miniseries about Joseph Kennedy’s relationship with his sons John and Robert, slated to air in 2011. “The Kennedys” represents the network’s first scripted project, a move that has triggered considerable chatter, Surnow said.
“When somebody comes on the scene and makes really kind of fierce, independent decisions, people take notice,” he said. “It feels like a very vital network, and I think the people in the industry see that.”