The hip and hype of history

Roger Daltrey is the perfect poster boy for history programming. On first consideration, a man who, as lead vocalist of the mod-rock band The Who, famously sang the lyric 'I hope I die before I get old' might not seem like the most appropriate representative of the genre. Looking at Daltrey's whole career, however, illuminates the association.
November 1, 2003

Roger Daltrey is the perfect poster boy for history programming. On first consideration, a man who, as lead vocalist of the mod-rock band The Who, famously sang the lyric ‘I hope I die before I get old’ might not seem like the most appropriate representative of the genre. Looking at Daltrey’s whole career, however, illuminates the association. Like history programs, The Who initially attracted a fringe audience. As each matured, their audiences grew. Daltrey eventually branched out into a solo career, and history got dedicated channels. Daltrey then went mainstream as a stage and film actor, and history made it into primetime on general interest channels worldwide. Each has come a long way, yet both labor under their initial reputations – Daltrey is best know for his involvement with The Who, and history is still regarded by many as stodgy; an old man’s genre.

How fitting that the singer’s latest project is Extreme History with Roger Daltrey, a reality-esque format that premiered on The History Channel in the U.S. in October. THC has a loyal audience that averages 50 years of age and is 70% men – the same ones that filled stadiums when Daltrey was tearing through 18 microphones in a single concert. But, media buyers aren’t interested in boomers. ‘Advertisers are interested in the 18 to 49-year-old demographic,’ says Peter Gaffney VP, scheduling, acquisition & digital for The History Channel U.S. ‘That’s the most attractive audience, and we’re trying to play along with that. The key is maintaining the core while trying to attract that 35 to 45-year-old man.’ Enter Daltrey, who takes the premise of living history to, well, its extreme, by revisiting some of the past’s greatest moments to survive the day-to-day realities of those adventures.

Many broadcasters are responding to this demographic challenge by backing high-profile docs that borrow heavily from drama and push the parameters of re-creation. However, these programs carry hefty budgets and are feasible only twice a year or quarterly. It’s what’s happening around these event docs that’s really pushing the genre forward. A growing sophistication in positioning historical programs in schedules and what topics are tackled is helping erase the notion that history is just black and white images of war. More importantly, a willingness to play with approach is bringing the genre in a more contemporary direction, one that’s fast-paced, entertaining and emotive.

Hook, line and winner

‘We’re going through a period of experimentation,’ announces Gaffney from his New York-based office at The History Channel. ‘The real question is: how far from what we have been known to do can we get away with?’

To answer this question, Gaffney says THC is busy developing pilot programs and test-driving a variety of formats with focus groups. Although he’s not ready to spill details just yet, Gaffney says the shows being considered take a unique view of history or tap into the reality trend, ‘as opposed to the straight documentary,’ he explains. Animation and game show techniques are also earning interest. ‘Last year at MIPCOM, living history was the buzz,’ says Gaffney. ‘It wasn’t as much of a buzz this year. It’s something that’s probably here to stay, but we’ve found you can only push that reality format so far before people say, ‘Been there, done that.’ It’s all about coming up with original ideas and pushing reality into different areas.’ He continues, ‘We’re looking for that piece of the genre that’s just a little different – the original piece that will break through.’ Gaffney cites Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as an example of a format that’s nothing new (it’s essentially a make-over show), but is successful because it has a unique hook.

This was exactly the thinking behind Extreme History with Roger Daltrey, which originally started as a history show about food. The pilot, called Mess Kit, looked at the gastronomical delights on which Lewis and Clark survived during their 1805 expedition through the mountains of Montana. Susan Werbe, THC’s VP of programming, says she liked the energy of the show, so expanded the focus to how people survived in general at various points in history. ‘We wanted to keep the yuck factor,’ she explains. ‘It has a lot of water-cooler moments, and that’s important to all of our viewers.’

THC approached New York-based Boom Pictures in September 2002 to produce the pilot episode and commissioned the 9 x 30-minute series in March 2003. Executive producers David Leepson and Matthew Ginsburg both come from a verité background and wanted to harness the spontaneous, gritty feel of that approach. ‘We felt incorporating as much of that into a half-hour, in addition to the standard stand-ups – that would be the blend,’ says Ginsburg.

The host too had to fit that criteria. ‘[THC] wanted a more radical, younger audience,’ recalls Leepson. ‘So, we knew we had to find someone who has that fish-out-of-water vibe to them, someone you wouldn’t expect to host a History Channel show.’ Both attribute choosing Daltrey – who delights viewers by surviving the muddy rapids of the Colorado River, and learning to hunt buffalo, among other exploits – to instinct. Both are also fans of The Osbournes, another show that features an aging rocker struggling to survive the nitty-gritty of daily life.

Werbe notes that viewers are younger later in the evening, so Extreme History airs at 10:30 P.M. on Sunday nights. The show, which uses quick edits and carries a budget ‘on the high end of average,’ also seems to be hitting its target audience. Says Gaffney, ‘When we skew younger, we find ways of filling those 30-second advertising slots more easily.’

Friends and frenzied

Picking up the pace of history is crucial when chasing a younger demographic. (To clarify, a younger demo for history generally means viewers in their 30s and 40s.) Says Nick Catliff, managing director of London-based prodco Lion Television, ‘A TV viewer doesn’t differentiate between a history and a non-history program… If the language and grammar of television is increasingly fast paced, is increasingly user-friendly, then you have to be swimming in that stream. There’s no point making history programs that time forgot.’

Lion and Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, U.S., recently coproduced History Detectives for PBS, a 10 x 60-minute series that features three different stories per episode, but still manages to squeeze in a plethora of juicy historical facts. Using the classic elements of a good mystery, the series hunts down the true stories behind landmarks, legends and artifacts belonging to everyday Americans. Leading the investigations are four fact-finders: a professor of architecture, a professor of sociology, a professional appraiser and an art historian.

‘We were eager to have another program on our air that works the way Antiques Roadshow does,’ explains Jacoba Atlas, senior vice president of pbs programming. ‘Antiques Roadshow attracts our widest audience week after week. We thought, ‘What are the core elements there that we can take to build up a new show that has the potential to become another icon series? What’s unique about that show that makes it pop out so much on our schedule?’ One of those things was how quickly it moved, and how many different stories it told within an hour.’ Atlas continues, ‘We also try to use music in a different way – to really underscore what the stories are about and to surprise you a little. All of those things help make the show more viewer-friendly.’

History Detectives also offers familiar faces week after week, a plus given that the PBS schedule is heavily populated with anthology or subject-driven strands. Explains Atlas, ‘We wanted something that was American history-oriented, but would also bring some onscreen personalities to the forefront.’

Atlas says History Detectives, which costs about US$250,000 per episode, attracts the widest range of viewers when compared to other PBS history programs. Its only rival is the pubcaster’s House franchise, a living history format (coproduced by Thirteen/WNET in New York and London-based Wall To Wall Television) that so far includes Frontier House and the upcoming Colonial House, which debuts spring 2004. ‘We found out that both History Detectives and the House franchise attract everyone from young kids to grandparents. It’s family viewing,’ she notes. Indeed, living history has done so well on PBS that the pubcaster is currently ironing out contract details for a second living history format that will be coproduced by Boston-based WGBH and London’s Channel 4. With its premiere planned for 2005, Atlas cagily describes the new format as ‘a variation on the House franchise, but it’s not the House.’

History Detectives is also greenlighted for a second season, beginning summer 2004. Catliff cites the series’ ability to emotionally engage viewers as key to its broad appeal – a strength he attributes to the bottom-up rather than top-down approach of linking an ordinary person’s possession or interest to the bigger historical picture. ‘There’s lots of ways of doing history where you can move into a younger audience without cutting the whole thing to a garish music track,’ says Catliff. ‘If you talk to commercial broadcasters, what they really want is viewers 18 to 34, preferably slightly male skewed,’ he explains. ‘But, history is never going to be big on that. What history is proving is that you can get large loyal audiences with good quality television. What they’re looking for is history that’s accessible to that audience.’

Hand in hand

Ensuring younger viewers turn up when invited to a primetime history program sometimes requires riding the coattails of another’s success. When Richard Melman, head of programming for THC U.K., commissioned the 4 x 1-hour series Sharpe’s War from London’s Eagle Media Productions, he did just that. Bernard Cornwell’s popular Sharpe books revolve around the fictional character of Lieutenant Richard Sharpe, but are based on real historic events. The History Channel series is narrated by the author and differentiates the facts from the fantasy of the novels. Says Melman, ‘I’m hoping people who think that history’s boring but love Sharpe will suddenly think, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ This is a way of getting people to test the water.’

Melman notes that the title of the program – which began broadcasting on Tuesday, November 18, at 8 P.M. – also works well on the increasingly important electronic program guide. More and more, viewers are tuning into the EPG over print media when searching for a program. Title space, however, is limited. ‘The Terrible Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand doesn’t work as an EPG title, because you just get The Terrible Ass,’ says Melman. ‘It might get you an audience, but not the one you were hoping for. I now spend a couple days a month looking at how things are promoted on the EPG and making sure we’re getting information [delivered] that makes a program seem interesting.’ He continues, ‘Every channel I know is looking for the perfect EPG title and Sharpe’s War is one of them. It’s a brand name – over here, the books sell in the millions. I’m trying to get the curious but not converted.’

THC U.K.’s audience is already slightly younger than that of its U.S. sibling. Skewing 62% male, viewers average 40 to 45 years of age. Still, Melman says, ‘I know we have some avid younger viewers, but not enough of them. I’d like a bigger audience – it’s as simple as that.’

Toronto-based History Television, part of the Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting group, is winning the 25-to-54 adult market by pairing history docs with related movies. ‘It’s a nice stunt – we get a lot of attention from the media on it,’ explains John Gill, senior VP of factual and BBC channels, Alliance Atlantis Communications.

On November 26 at 9 p.m., History Television will premiere Deadly Arts, a six-part series that investigates the world of martial arts. Hosted by a woman boasting a black-belt in aikido, the docs visit experts across the globe – in Brazil for capoeira, India for kalaripayattu, France for savate, Japan for aikido, Thailand for muay Thai, and Okinawa for karate – to reveal the history, philosophy, skills and etiquette of these fighting styles. The series is scheduled to coincide with the theatrical release of director Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill, and The Last Samurai, the latest Tom Cruise vehicle. ‘Kill Bill also features a female protagonist and martial arts,’ explains Gill. ‘There’s going to be buzz around it, and we’re going to be part of that.’ He continues, ‘We have really put a heavy push this year, not only on scheduling but marketing to let people know history is more than just war.’

Women are among those considered outside history’s core demographic, and Gill says History Television is trying to change that. (See sidebar) Like PBS and THC, History Television has drawn in female viewers with a living history franchise – Quest, which launched late 2000 with Pioneer Quest. The latest installment, Quest for the Sea, begins airing in January and sees a family living in a remote fishing community on the south coast of Newfoundland, Canada, with the tools and shelter available in the 1930s. History Television is also peeking into history’s more intimate affairs in the hope of luring women to the channel. The History of Mistresses anchored a week in September branded ‘Sex, Lies and Spies,’ and Anatomy of Burlesque will air on February 14, Valentine’s Day. ‘We’re trying to hammer home that there’s more here for a wider range of people,’ notes Gill.

At broadcast outlets around the globe, Gill’s words stand as the history genre’s current mantra. Says Lion Television’s Catliff, ‘In the past, broadcasters had history because it serves the audience and wins awards, but they didn’t care that much about it. Now it drives a lot of schedules.’ But, he cautions, ‘It’s out there now competing with leisure and lifestyle programming. If you’re going to compete with that programming, you have to be inventive with those slots.’


Come hither

History TV woos female ad buyers

The origin of a package mailed to female media buyers at the beginning of September probably had a few women surprised. Folded inside the brown paper wrapping synonymous with ‘private purchases’ was a note from Toronto-based History Television that was really more of an invitation: your own mistress start-up kit. As encouragement, a M.A.C lipstick in the shade of ‘Lust’ and a gift certificate to lingerie store La Senza were included.

‘One of the challenges with a commercially focused channel like History Television is that people in the media-buying community are not likely to be viewers of the channel,’ explains Walter Levitt, senior VP of marketing for Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting, History TV’s parent company. ‘Most people who buy media tend to be women in their 20s and early 30s who, frankly, are not the target group for this channel.’ Indeed, Sherida Caldwell, marketing manager for History TV, estimates that women comprise 75% to 80% of all media buyers.

As a result, AAB has launched an extensive trade campaign to bring the ad-buying community’s perceptions of History TV in line with its current identity. ‘We think there are advertisers who have not been on the channel that could benefit from being on [History TV],’ says Levitt. ‘We’re trying to get the ad agency people who are not viewers to better understand what it’s all about.’

The mistress kit was the first push of the campaign and linked to the channel’s ‘Sex, Lies and Spies’ week, which featured the doc The History of Mistresses. It was followed in October with a drop for Deadly Arts, a six-part series on martial arts that begins airing November 26. White Japanese paper tied with a black belt unwrapped to reveal a gift certificate for self-defense classes and a complimentary ticket to an advance screening of The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise.

‘We tried to fit programming content in the fall and spring that media buyers wouldn’t realize we carry,’ says Caldwell. ‘Those are the opportunities to start changing ideas…and start demonstrating to them that we have a variety of 25-to-54, younger-skewing content.’ KB

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.