Entertainment A-List 2009

Entertainment A-List No. 9: History Channel

Top Producers and Brands Wake Up to History

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Nancy Dubuc had one singular challenge when she was appointed exec VP-general manager of the History Channel at the beginning of 2007: How do you make history entertaining?

Nancy Dubuc, exec VP-general manager of the History Channel
Nancy Dubuc, exec VP-general manager of the History Channel
The solution: Tell great stories that put history through the lens of the present and find brand-name producers to do the entertaining for you. That was the driving force behind "Ice Road Truckers" and "Ax Men," the highest-rated shows in History's, well, history, both from producer Thom Beers ("Deadliest Catch," "Black Gold"). Those two shows are the anchors of a major growth story for the formerly staid network, with all 10 of the network's highest-rated series all developed under Ms. Dubuc's oversight.

The new shows have brought in a whole new audience, with History reaching its youngest-ever median viewer age in prime time (48.5) and a wider, more male-skewing roster of ad clients, attracting marketers such as Burger King, Pizza Hut, Pepsi and MillerCoors for the first time.

"Just being able to say the word 'entertaining' is refreshing," Ms. Dubuc said. "It's not like we were going to do wrestling, but it's our duty to make what we do entertaining. Because we faced the elephant in the room, we were able to tackle it head on."

The commitment to entertaining programming has also translated to the network's marketing. History has racked up an impressive array of first-to-market innovations for any marketer, let alone a cable network, from a home page takeover on Nascar.com (to promote "Ax Men") to a fully-wrapped subway train at New York's Grand Central shuttle (for "Cities of the Underworld") to the first perforated mix-and-match magazine-cover ad in the May 2009 issue of Esquire. That was to plug "Life After People," which became History's third highest-rated series.

No fudging history

"Ice Road Truckers" avg. viewership
Median age of prime-time viewer
Number of Top 10 History series developed by Dubuc
Chris Moseley, History's senior VP-marketing, said those first-to-market pieces were "strategically designed to be unexpected for the brand," but with a larger commitment to accuracy and detail that other networks don't have to worry about because they don't have the word "history" in their name. A recent TV promo for "Life After People," for example, featured an empty phone booth against a desolate city backdrop, with a ring tone as the only sound. Fans immediately called out the network for the dramatic license. "We were getting e-mails [that said], 'If there were no people, the phone would have no tone,'" Ms. Moseley said.

The next and arguably biggest step in History's road to becoming a major entertainment player on TV is "Expedition," an epic eight-part series premiering May 31 from Mark Burnett, creator of "Survivor" and "The Apprentice." As a testament to History's status as a go-to place for top-tier producers, "Expedition" was developed in partnership with History, Mr. Burnett said, rather than a cable dumping zone for a show pitched and ditched by the broadcast networks. The show chronicles four explorers as they try to recreate the famous African expedition Stanley and Livingstone embarked upon over a century ago, only in 30 days instead of nine months.

Mr. Burnett declared the series "one of my most favorite projects ever," and is already plotting ambitious plans for future installments should the first go-round meet and exceed expectations. "If the series does well, we absolutely want to do more expeditions all around an historical through-line," he said, mentioning Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Pizarro as other explorers whose expeditions he may want to recreate for a modern audience with History.

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