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Rewriting History With Ms. Dubuc

Apr 27, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Nancy Dubuc knows what men like.
In a little more than a year as general manager of History, Ms. Dubuc has pumped up the volume on the cable channel’s programming, luring in new viewers without alienating a core audience of mostly male viewers (including iconic TV character Tony Soprano).
Pulling off that trick has made History even more popular with ad buyers as an alternative to ESPN.
At today’s upfront, Ms. Dubuc will be unveiling a slate of new shows from topnotch producers aimed at following in the high-rated bootprints of “Ice Road Truckers” and “Ax Men.” Ms. Dubuc will unveil series about tunnel diggers, super trains and a show retracing the steps of Stanley and Livingstone in Africa.
The programming is designed to build on Ms. Dubuc’s strategy of emphasizing series that will bring viewers to History, rather than one-shot specials. That strategy was so successful that nine of the top-rated series in the channel’s 13-year history were launched after April 2007.
In the first quarter, History’s prime-time viewership among adults 25 to 54 rose 23% from a year ago and the network rose to No. 6 in that demo from No. 11. Viewership among young adults 18 to 34 rose 36%.
“We set out to make sure people sample us every night, and I think we’re pretty much there, six of the seven nights a week,” Ms. Dubuc said.
The network shows reruns on Saturday, but “every time I walk into a scheduling meeting I go, ‘What about Saturday night? Remember “Love Boat” was huge on Saturday night.’”
How has she done it?
“She’s a talent magnet,” said Howard Owens, managing director at Reveille, which is producing a new show about private military forces, tentatively titled “Eyes on Target,” for History. “People like me want to work with her, people like Mark Burnett want to work with her. That really says it all.”
Thom Beers, CEO and executive producer of Original Productions, which makes “Ice Road Truckers” and “Ax Men” for History, said he has three more projects in development with Ms. Dubuc.
“To make a good television show, you have to do deals with crazy people,’ said Mr. Beers, who also makes “The Most Dangerous Catch” for Discovery and has three projects in the works for NBC. “What I love about Nancy is she can be both incredibly nurturing and supportive, and at the same time, if you’re not giving her what she wants, she’ll kick your ass in a heartbeat.”
History, which changed its name last month from the History Channel, already had respectable ratings, and its male skew kept it in demand with advertisers when Ms. Dubuc was tapped in January 2007 to run the network by Abbe Raven, CEO of A&E Television Networks.
“We absolutely believed there was more potential for History,” said Ms. Raven, who was part of the original team that launched the channel and approved an increase in its programming budget last year.
“Nancy’s expertise is continuing to find what else is around the corner and being able to reach out,” she said. “She has a really strong programming documentary background and she understands about how to tell great stories and make them come alive on television.”
Ms. Dubuc will be adding more series to the network next season.
One, due in the fourth quarter, is called “Sandhogs,” about the men and women who dig the deep tunnels that keep New York City running. The show is executive produced by Craig Piligian of Pilgrim Films and Eddie Rosenstein of Eye Pop Productions.
“These men risk their lives every day and have for generations. It’s a very dangerous job and a very unknown job. That’s a combination that’s been a winning success for us,” said Ms. Dubuc.
“Extreme Trains” arrives in the third quarter. The series from Tiger Aspect Productions is hosted by train conductor Matt Brown, who profiles the history of interesting railways ranging from the Ringling Bros. Circus train to the New York City subway.
“These things are really fun to look at,” Ms. Dubuc said. “It may be a sleeper on our schedule.”
Last week the network said it was working with “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett on a series in which a group of explorers would retrace journalist Henry Morton Stanley’s famous 19th-century journey to find Dr. David Livingstone in Africa.
This summer, the network will finally get to air the long-awaited “Jurassic Fight Club,” which relies on slow-to-produce computer imagery. Ms. Dubuc is already awaiting the next set of episodes.
She declined to say how much more the network was spending on programming. In ramping up the network’s series programming, the network may take a short-term financial hit.
Spending for Success
“We have their program spending growth rate up 15% in 2008, more than double last year’s growth rate,” said Derek Baine, senior analyst at SNL Kagan. “This is going to cut into margins in 2008, but over the long-term should boost ratings and profitability.”
Kagan estimates History will spend $227.6 million on programming this year and $250.4 million in 2009. Cash flow will be $214 million in 2008, down from $220 million last year. That figure is expected to rebound and hit $231.2 million in 2010, according to Kagan.
Ms. Dubuc said the main difference between the network’s new shows and its old ones is in the way they’re executed.
“Every second of a show is an opportunity to change the channel,” she said. “I’m a big drum beater around here of, ‘You can’t give people the option to change the channel,’ which means your shows have to be riveting and interesting and exciting and emotional and high-stakes and dramatic.”
While some at History were concerned that its core viewers like slower-paced, talking-head, documentary-style programming, those viewers “see that history is dynamic and personal,” she said. “When you put well-executed TV shows together with the great stories of history, I think that’s what’s driving our success.”
And how does Ms. Dubuc, the 39-year-old mother of a young son and daughter who started her career working on documentaries at Christian Science Monitor TV, have such a keen sense of what men want to watch?
“I’m married to a guy. I have a brother and a father,” she said. “The key to being a successful programmer is not programming for yourself ever. You have to be vigilant in thinking about who the audience is.”
While some critics question what an “Ice Road Truckers” or “Ax Men” have to do with History, those popular shows focus on subjects that have been covered by the network in the past.
Ms. Raven said one of History’s oldest shows, “Modern Marvels,” had an episode on the ice road truckers 10 years ago, and ratings would spike whenever it aired.
Still, turning it into a series was a bit of a gamble.
“It’s four guys driving in a straight line over a frozen lake at 15 miles an hour by themselves,” Mr. Beers said. “Who in their right mind would make that show? That’s gutsy, and that’s what I like about [Ms. Dubuc].”
He also likes that History has been backing its shows with marketing dollars.
“She puts her money where her mouth is and she literally delivers on that promise. You give me a good show. I’ll get you an audience,” Mr. Beers said. “God, I’m thrilled when I see those billboards and posters up.”
Mr. Owens said History is paying to have Reveille’s show shot in high definition at a time that many reality shows are still shot in the standard-definition format.
“We’re able to create something with Nancy in mind knowing that we’re not going to have to go near the lowest common denominator,” he said. ‘It will be something you’re proud of.”
In addition to changing the programming, Ms. Dubuc is ramping up activity on the network’s Web site, History.com, and launched a new marketing campaign using the theme “Making History Every Day.”
“What I love about what Nancy and her team are doing is they’re looking at a way to make history truly come alive for a wider audience,” Ms. Raven said. “To me that’s an incredible service that we’re doing for the American public. We’re making young people excited about history.”

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