Meet the new History Channel. Not the same as the old History Channel.
The network, occasionally criticized for stodgy, static programming, wants to make sure baby boomers and younger viewers won't be bored again. So History is cranking it up with new series featuring a more dynamic, aggressive style -- leading the charge is the Who's lead singer, Roger Daltrey, who brings his irreverence and charismatic swagger to "Extreme History," the highest-profile new show.
"So many History Channel shows are so pedantic, just talking heads and old film," Daltrey says. "Sooner or later that audience will die out, so they must find a new way to present history. This is a show that goes to the wire."
"Extreme History," which debuts Sunday, explores what it took to survive caveman life, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Civil War, the Chisholm Trail, the first Colorado River exploration, buffalo hunts, auto racing's early days and life as a firefighter. But it minimizes facts and dates in favor of stories and hands-on experience -- Daltrey hurtles down the Colorado's rapids, shoots (blunted) arrows at buffalo, races around an old dirt track and dons firefighter gear for a search and rescue.
"We take the history very seriously, but it's not a history lesson in the traditional sense. It's more hanging out with Roger and the experts," says Matt Ginsburg, co-executive producer of the show with David Leepson.
"It's hands-on so you don't feel we're spoon-feeding you information," adds editor Pierre Takal.
Indeed, while the episodes are meticulously researched and scouted and pumped up with a fast-paced, you-are-there visual style, Ginsburg says Daltrey and the experts carry the show. Daltrey asks thoughtful questions, but its his anyway, anyhow, anywhere attitude, easy charm and bawdy humor that distinguishes this from past History Channel fare.
The History Channel is counting on Daltrey's presence and the new look to generate buzz. "We have high hopes for this show and for our new approach," says programming vice president Susan Werbe.
The network is investing heavily to reach new viewers, spending money for the first time on pilots and focus groups. In fact, the network originally hired Leepson and Ginsburg to make "Mess Kit," a food-oriented show -- the pilot tested well, but the topic was deemed too narrow and was expanded into "Extreme History." It's joined this fall by "Guts and Bolts," a you-are-there show about technological advances, "Shifting Gears," a fast-paced car show, "Deep Sea Detectives," a high-tech show filmed largely underwater, and "Come Home Alive," which recounts stories of terrorism victims movie style.
"We're not abandoning our traditional shows, but we're adding these shows that are very active with a lot of shooting on location," Werbe says.
It's a shrewd and necessary move, says Bob Flood, director of national electronic media for the ad-buying company Optimedia. "Audience fragmentation is forcing all networks to invest in more original programming and to experiment with new genres."
And, he adds, Daltrey's presence guarantees attention from the press and the public. (Daltrey's storied past comes up only occasionally -- as he carves an oar he reminisces about building guitars as a child; when an Indian gives him war paint, he spontaneously writes "The Who," with its arrow logo, across his hands.)
An outspoken host
Of course, hiring someone famous for being a straight-talking rebel comes at a price. Daltrey bluntly scorns the show's title, saying it creates false expectations for viewers, forces awkward writing and limits potential topics. "Some people must have been living in cupboards for years to think 'Extreme' is cool in 2003," he said, with a History Channel publicist present. Daltrey, who likens the network's logo to a cigarette ad, also is prepared to do battle with the network's marketing executives, whom he views as timid. "I'm trying to convince them to go dangerous on advertising," he says. "You have to upset people. I'm in rock 'n' roll, and that's what I used to do. Then they'll watch."
While most rock icons wouldn't even bother with a low-budget documentary series, Daltrey has always stood out for his willingness to try anything, whether it's movies ("Tommy," "McVicar"), musicals (charity benefits of "Wizard of Oz" and "My Fair Lady") or helping out a rock 'n' roll fantasy camp. He dismisses people who try to put him down just because he gets around. "What should I do, take up knitting?" he laughs. "I'm always up for a challenge."
Daltrey took this role partly because after nearly 40 years of seeing America's airplanes, hotels and arenas, he wanted to see "the real country" -- "That has been the real reward," he says. But Daltrey -- whose depth and intelligence get overshadowed by the intellectualism of bandmate Pete Townshend -- also sees a powerful mission behind this show. He wants to remind viewers of how far out of touch with reality we are.