Summit ’16: Jana Bennett on putting “history back on History”

During a keynote conversation, the newly installed History president and general manager laid out a programming strategy that will layer more documentaries and scripted dramas in with the cable net's reality fare.
February 3, 2016

By this time next year, History will be airing more documentaries, documentary series, experimental short-form programming and scripted dramas.

Much like Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel, the A+E Networks-owned cable channel was touting a shift to so-called premium programming during the Realscreen Summit in Washington DC.

On Tuesday (February 2), the network’s newly installed president and GM Jana Bennett (pictured) outlined plans to strengthen the History brand through an increased focus on history while appealing to more diverse audiences.

While Bennett is not abandoning reality fare such as Pawn Stars and American Pickers, she wants to diversify the male-skewing channel’s programming to better compete for viewers with on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon and reach slightly younger, broader and more diverse viewers who are inclined to watch content digitally.

A big part of that strategy includes documentaries and scripted. “We’re adding more premium hours in the mix,” she said.

In a keynote conversation with Half Yard Productions CEO Abby Greensfelder, she explained her challenge is essentially to answer the following question: “What is the state of the modern guy?”

“There is an element that is about fantasy or escapism. It’s about, ‘What could I be?’” she elaborated. “But guys are increasingly in the kitchen.”

Bennett wants to explore more brand-defining documentary events that can be promoted globally, as well as purely documentary series such as Billion Dollar Wreck, produced by Original Productions and exec produced by Michael Bay, premiering on February 8.

Programming will have more historical references – an ethos summed up by comedian Craig Ferguson in the teaser Bennett showed for his upcoming talk show Join or Die with Craig Ferguson: “History is back on the History Channel.”

Bennett said that whether it’s a talk show or a competition format, a History series must put a historical filter on timely and zeitgeist-y events that answer the question, “How did we end up where we are?”

Bennett is particularly interested in big, ambitious documentaries and “looks back” at the past 30 years.

“We want to own big historical looks back,” she said, adding that the network will mark the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this fall and unveil history-based programming tied to the election in November.

Bennett, who oversaw the launch of millennial-focused lifestyle net FYI for A+E, is also working on programming that can move between digital and linear TV.

Examples are a yet-to-be announced half-hour show of experimental short-form humor that will air following Ferguson’s talk show, as well as a series of personal oral histories.

“I’m interested in exploring storytelling that’s more free and easy with techniques,” she said, citing the use of archival in the Netflix series Narcos and random celebrities popping up in The Big Short to explain complex financial terminology.

Finally, she is interested in more purely informational programs to draw back viewers that gravitated to sister network H2, which is due to rebrand in the U.S. as Viceland.

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

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