NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As recently as three years ago, the History Channel could politely be referred to as your grandfather's network, with enough Civil War documentaries and World War II veteran profiles to put anyone under the age of 60 to sleep. But in 2009, the network became a surprise destination for young men, and routinely beats its biggest competitor, Discovery Channel, on the strength of shows such as "Ice Road Truckers," "Ax Men" and "Life After People."
The cable network even has a median viewer age of 48.5 in prime time, its youngest ever, helping the network crack the media plans for younger, male-skewing brands such as Burger King, Pizza Hut, Pepsi and MillerCoors for the first time.
"Four or five years ago, History was viewed as a staid network," said Mel Berning, exec VP-ad sales for History and A&E, citing an old reliance on financial and domestic autos before more entertainment, fast food and package-goods dollars came in. "Now buyers see a lot more relevant programming, and it's much easier to make a sale to them."
Cable TV 2009
History's transformation began in late 2006, with the appointment of Nancy Dubuc, a former programmer at network sibling A&E, as its new exec VP-general manager. Under Ms. Dubuc's tutelage, the network quickly realized it needed a broader definition of the word "history" -- and a team of buzz-worthy producers to assemble shows that could speak to that.
Enter Thom Beers, who produced "Deadliest Catch" for Discovery and "Black Gold" for TruTV. Mr. Beers teamed up with History for its two highest-rated series ever, "Ice Road Truckers" (which reached an average of 1.8 million adults 25 to 54, according to Nielsen), and "Ax Men" (an average of 1.2 million adults 25 to 54). Those and seven other series developed under Ms. Dubuc's reign are nine of the network's 10 highest-rated series of all time.
"We have the somewhat good fortune of credibility, which producers take to heart," Ms. Dubuc said. "Our biggest challenge now is we're looking for that next thing. We're not looking for pitches that are derivative of what's on our air."
To that end, History will enter the second phase of its reinvention this June with the premiere of "Expedition," a reality quest to recreate the Tanzanian travels of Henry Stanley and Dr. David Livingstone from mega-producer Mark Burnett ("The Apprentice," "Survivor"). Not only is the show a modern spin on two of history's most famous explorers, it's already drawn advertisers, with Subaru, Orbitz and Fidelity insurance all signed on as presenting sponsors.
Although the show was designed to remain as true to the original, technology-free expedition as possible, Subaru stepped in as an integrated sponsor for one particular episode.
"There was some terrain where you just had to use a car to get across it," said Amy Baker, History's senior VP-ad sales, who tapped the networks' in-house integrated-marketing team to help Subaru film B-roll footage across Tanzania for customized vignettes that will air throughout the show's first season this summer.
History was also able to find a natural marketing opportunity for Sears Craftsman tools, which will be the first fully integrated sponsor for the third season of "Ice Road Truckers" in June. "There's always been a garage that all the truckers go to, so in that garage there'll be Sears Craftsman tools signage, tools all over the place and guys in the garage wearing their shirts," Ms. Baker said. "It's extremely organic because the guys need them, and it's something that production company was looking for, so all the stars aligned."
Having firmly planted History's competitive stake in nonfiction entertainment on TV, Ms. Dubuc's next ambition is to make the brand equally synonymous with all things history online. In the fourth quarter, History.com will be relaunched as an information and video portal with a specific focus on stealing some of Wikipedia's share of the top 500 historical keyword searches on Google.
"Wikipedia gets a lot of flak from the education community about its accuracy," Ms. Dubuc said. "In the future, we want to be a more video-oriented version of Wikipedia. We recognize people are coming to us for informational on historical topics, so we need to have the breadth and depth online that the network already has on-air."