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The Past Is Its Present and Future

September 30, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is Tony Soprano's favorite channel. And it has become the favorite of a lot of history buffs. Now in its sixth year, the History Channel currently can be seen in 77 million homes. It finished the month of August tied for 10th place in household ratings among basic cable networks and tied for fifth place in ratings among men 25-54.

Though it began by covering traditional historical topics, the channel's programming has evolved into a rather hip exploration of all things past, including pop culture. This week, for example, includes a "History vs. Hollywood" take on the film "Hoffa" (Tuesday). Abbe Raven, executive vice president and general manager of the History Channel, discussed the rising popularity of the network and what's in store for the fall.

Question: Will the recent, tragic attack on New York and Washington, D.C., affect the programming of the History Channel in the coming months?

Answer: We ran some messages [during the week of the attack] and some specials [the following week]. We are not trying to be exploitative because we are not a news organization, but we do feel a responsibility to provide some background. I think it will impact some of the things we will be doing later in the fall, but we are still sort of grappling with what that will be.

Q: Has the History Channel changed considerably since its inception six years ago?

A: Yes, we have definitely evolved. Last May, I was sitting at home and was watching "Once and Again" on the ABC network. The main character gets a phone call and his daughter says, "He can't come to the phone right now; he's watching the History Channel." Within [a period of] two weeks, we were a question on "Jeopardy!," then we were talked about very intensively on "The View" and then we were spoofed on "Saturday Night Live." I remember I came in that Monday [after "SNL"] and I said, "Guys, we have arrived."

Q: The History Channel seems to do a lot of nontraditional examinations of history like "History vs. Hollywood" and "The Great American History Quiz."

A: Programming was a little heavier [when we began]. We had probably a little bit more military programming on than we have now. The other major difference is we've gone from more acquisitions in the early years to now we are doing almost 100% original programming. As we began to do original programming, we began to branch out to do some original concepts like "This Week in History" and "History vs. Hollywood" and more in-depth miniseries like "The History of Britain," which we are doing the second part [in October], and "Gold," which was a huge success for us in August. We have "American Classics," which is coming up later in November. It is a look at what is considered an American classic, whether tangible items or people or aspects of our society that have become American icons. I love that Dick Clark is hosting it. He's an American classic.

Q: The History Channel won the Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences two years ago for its "Save Our History" campaign. Is that an ongoing campaign?

A: "Save Our History" is a very, very important part of our mandate. We do four or more programs a year that are all under the banner of "Save Our History." We have [a program] on the USS Arizona coming up which will air around the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Our wish is to communicate to the audience that it is imperative that there are certain institutions they need to know more about to help preserve history in this country.

Q: Who watches the History Channel?

A: Our audience is 70% male, and we are proud of that. We have proven that men want to watch things beyond sports. They have other interests. They are looking for information programs. But we have found we do have programs that do appeal to women and families and kids. Because I have a teenager, I hear a lot about teenagers watching the History Channel who have found an interest in history.

Two years ago, we won the Women in Cable Accolade Award for a program that contributed to understanding women in history--"Mercury 13: The Secret Astronauts." That was about women who were trying to become astronauts at the beginning of the space program. They trained and trained and eventually could not continue because they had to get a certain amount of flying time from the Air Force, and they couldn't get it. Nobody had told that story on a major network before.

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