Cited as a broadcast maverick in several of realscreen‘s annual reports of the same name, History and Lifetime Networks president/GM Nancy Dubuc has proven her ability to reinvigorate and reshape a network, first with A&E and next with History. As SVP, non-fiction and alternative programming for A&E, a post she held until June 2006 when she was given the SVP non-fiction role across AETN nets, she took an arts and culture network that was the second-oldest skewing cable net on the air (second only to Hallmark Channel) and shaved its average viewing age from 61 to 46, overseeing such hits as Hybrid Films’ Dog the Bounty Hunter and GRB’s Intervention in the process. And with History, once known as the home for all things World War II, the facelift came via such younger-skewing programming as Original Productions’ gritty Ice Road Truckers, and continues with such hits as Leftfield Productions’ Pawn Stars.
In each case, Dubuc has been unapologetic in her assertion that the programming connects with the channel’s mandate. A&E put pop culture into its arts & culture offering, while also marking the net as a home for “Real Life” programs. For History, she says that while shows such as American Pickers and Pawn Stars “have fun titles, they’re still history with a capital ‘H.’”
“Perception is one thing but if you actually watch the shows, the content is very rich in history, delivered in a different way,” Dubuc says from AETN’s New York offices. “We set out to prove the elasticity of the brand and I think we’ve done that.”
In truth, Dubuc and her team at History have done that and much more, growing its audiences in every demo for the past four years. And the reinvigoration is not over yet.
‘When you sit back and say, ‘Okay, everything is working,’ that’s the day that in some ways, you give up,” she says. ‘One of our favorite phrases here is that we’re in the business of ‘Best year ever.’ We all like to tout that claim to fame, because the media runs the headline, but the reality is that the everyday nature of our business is to do that. It’s to better ourselves quarter over quarter.”
It’s not easy. One recent challenge for Dubuc and History came with the decision to shelve what was to be its scripted television debut, the eight-part series The Kennedys. The series, which was reportedly produced for somewhere in the neighborhood of US$30 million, was deemed “not a fit for the History brand,” according to an AETN statement issued just prior to this story’s press time.
Another challenge for Dubuc – one that she’s keen to take on – is leading AETN’s recently-acquired Lifetime Networks as president/GM. She won’t speak specifically about tone or direction for its unscripted offerings yet - “If you look at my track record, I like to try a lot of things,” she says. It’s that risk-taking approach that she says will best benefit the Lifetime audience, and therefore the brand.
“I don’t need to produce the 18th version of a wedding dress show or a cake show, because that’s not what the Lifetime viewer wants to see,” she offers. “They have that already; there are very good wedding dress shows out there and very good cake shows. What we have to do is find something the viewer isn’t seeing. We have to find a point of view, an environment, a character that ignites a conversation that’s completely new in the media marketplace. It’s a very challenging thing to do and rather than come at it from the approach of looking for a needle in a haystack, I come at it saying we’ll play the numbers, try a lot and one of these things is going to hit.”
In both times when you’ve introduced new genres and types of programming to your networks, there has been criticism from those who would call themselves “purists” regarding History or A&E programming…
I think most of that criticism comes up on a lot of the social media sites we see, where everyone’s allowed to be a critic and everyone’s allowed to voice their opinion. And I’m in support of that. But the reality is I’ve got numbers to back it up. In the four years that I’ve taken over, we’ve grown every demo, P2 to +65. So there’s been no erosion of the core viewer – they’ve grown double digits. When you live in an environment where people can post their opinions on anything and the blogosphere is the new journalism, unfortunately, you don’t end up with the whole story. You have to have a lot thicker skin and make sure you’re listening to it in case there is truth to it. But you also have to dig deeper and ask yourself the hard questions: is this the voice of one over the action of many, or is it truly the voice of many?
Thom Beers once said that you’re the only exec who can “scare the crap out of him.” Any idea why that is?
I started wearing high heels.
In all seriousness, there’s a fragility in the creative process where sometimes executives and producers translate that as a fear to speak one’s mind, and that’s when the creative process goes south. You have to be willing to trust one another and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t good,’ and come out the other side to make it good. When that starts happening, that’s true creativity. But when everyone in the room is afraid to be honest, you’re just going to go in circles.