History's series have included "WWII in HD." (Popperfoto / Getty Images )
History channel President Nancy Dubuc knows what she's up against running a cable television network devoted to events from long ago in an age of real-time tweets and quirky videos that go viral instantaneously.
"History, people automatically say, is black and white and fuddy-duddy," she said matter-of-factly.
But not according to Dubuc. Since taking over History three years ago, the young executive has sought to recast the network in Technicolor. To do so, she's undertaken a provocative strategy: severing the cable channel's tether to the past.
Once referred to as "the Hitler channel" for its seemingly endless stream of dusty World War II documentaries, the network now crackles with modern-day adventures, many in the guise of unscripted shows so common now on television. Big-rig truckers brave the frozen tundra in "Ice Road Truckers," while the brawny loggers of "Ax Men" dodge falling timber in the Pacific Northwest. History's newest hit is "Pawn Stars," a flashy "Antiques Roadshow" set in a Las Vegas pawnshop. This year, the network will introduce "Top Shot," a reality contest that will pay $100,000 to the marksman who can best replicate the aim of Annie Oakley and other famous shots.
Even its more sober-minded specials have taken on contemporary topics, some still raw to recount. In its Emmy-winning 2008 documentary "102 Minutes That Changed America," the network documented the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in real time through amateur footage. A companion piece, "9/12: The Day After," is set to air this year.
Admirers praise Dubuc for injecting real life into a network that had largely been an afterthought in the industry. Top-tier television producers behind hits such as "Survivor" and "24" now vie to get their projects on History, which next year plans to air its first scripted drama. But the channel has had to tread carefully to avoid alienating the history enthusiasts that make up its base. And its insistence that programs set in the present day are still rooted in history has drawn scoffs from some competitors.
The evolution of History, which dropped "Channel" from its name in 2008 and added the tag line "History Made Every Day," is one of the most dramatic makeovers of a cable network in recent years. In embracing reality shows, which are cheap to produce and humming with human drama, the cable channel has followed the tack taken by much of the television industry in the last decade.
"Viewers aren't buying LPs anymore; they're going to iTunes," said Dubuc, 41, seated in her tastefully appointed Manhattan office. "It's not fair to expect the person selling LPs not to embark on an iTunes strategy. You have to recognize what audiences are consuming. At its heart, we're still telling historical stories," she added, noting that the ice road tuckers and lumberjacks weave in stories about the past in explaining their professions. "We're just telling them in a more innovative way."
Some may take issue with the historical value of programs such as "UFO Hunters" and "Nostradamus Effect." But there's no question that Dubuc has blown the cobwebs out of a network that had been growing stagnant. History had its best ratings ever in 2009, averaging 1.18 million viewers in prime time, 3% over 2008's record viewership, and made it into the top 10 basic cable channels in the key 25- to 54-year-old advertising demographic for the first time. During Dubuc's tenure, the channel has launched its 10 highest-rated series and shaved four years off the median age of its viewers, now 48. And it narrowed the gap with competitors such as Discovery Channel and SyFy, which this year both averaged 1.2 million viewers in prime time.
That's translated into real money. In 2009, History brought in an estimated $610 million in revenue from advertising and licensing fees, up from $513 million in 2006, according to the research firm SNL Kagan. The channel, owned by the A&E Television Networks -- a joint venture of the Hearst Corp., the Walt Disney Co. and NBC Universal -- has attracted sponsors such as Home Depot, Lexus and MillerCoors seeking to target its young male viewers.
Advertisers are impressed with how the network has pivoted, said Ethan Heftman, vice president and director of national broadcast for the media buying firm Initiative. "There definitely was some surprise when they entered the unscripted realm, but that's what draws ratings," he said. "It hasn't gone trashy, but at the end of the day they're realistic about what viewers want to see."
In greenlighting personality-driven programs, Dubuc appears to have taken a page from the Discovery Channel, the flagship network of Discovery Communications, whose hit "Deadliest Catch" spawned an entire genre of testosterone-pumping reality shows. She brought on "Catch" producer Thom Beers to do "Ice Road Truckers" and its upcoming spinoff, "Extreme Trucking," among other projects.