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History Moves to the Future
By: Jeff Louis
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The History Channel has an image problem.

Well, that's not necessarily the truth because the History Channel is known simply as History™ now, dropping "Channel" in early 2008. The image problem stems from the fact that the entire world, especially the United States, looks toward the future. History is, after all, the past, evoking images of black and white, poor television reception, and uninteresting news casts. It's a channel for the parents or grandparents.

That was so 2000! History has a new look, new programming, and tag line: "History Made Every Day," communicating the fact the network is changing. The new tag allows the network to introduce updated programming, a vital element in an era of viral videos and real-time searches. History's changing right before your eyes, and you probably didn't notice.

The only reason I took note of the change is due to the fact I enjoy historical documentaries. Thus, when "Ice Road Truckers," "Ax Men," and "Pawn Stars" come on, you'd think a history geek like me would turn the channel. I don't. Although it's not "history," the new programming is quite good.

In 2008, the network grabbed an Emmy for a documentary, "102 Minutes that Changed America," which documented the 9/11 terror attacks in real time, using amateur film footage. A second documentary, "9/12: The Day After," was compiled in the same way and will air in 2010. 

Once a network that was just part of the television dial, TV producers behind hit series like "24" and "Survivor" fight to get their projects on History. Today's events are rooted in the past, or so says History's President Nancy Dubuc, according to a recent Chicago Tribune article. The network, she says, walks a fine line between past and present when screening candidates for new shows,

"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."

History ensures to intertwine the past and the present in its new reality-based programming. For instance, loggers on "Ax Men" show their present lives but also revisit logging's past, adding a historical background to the story. While some shows, like "UFO Hunters" and "The Nostradamus Effect," are a stretch, the network thus far has been successful with it's new strategy, scoring its best ratings ever in 2009 for the Adult, 25-54 demographic. Under Nancy Dubuc's three-year tenure, History's median-aged viewer has dropped from 52 to 48, and the ten highest-rated shows have been launched under her watchful eyes. 

Appealing to the 25-54 demographic audience is key; viewers are more likely to be working and have some sort of discretionary income -- things that appeal to advertisers. For History, this means additional revenue, nearly $100 million more than the network reported in 2006, when Dubuc took over. The fact the network has begun "reality" programming should keep this current trend active.

Many cable insiders see History's addition of reality programming as a smart move, but Nancy Dubuc states there's more method than madness to her strategy and refers to the newer programming as "the next iteration of documentary storytelling."

The network's future is clear to History, or at least to its leader: They plan to continue their precarious balance between reality shows and historical documentaries. In 2010, the cable network will launch its most expensive program ever, a 12-part series covering U.S. History from the pilgrims to the present. They'll also introduce some unscripted fare as well, including "Top Shots," a reality contest that will pay $100,000 to the marksman who can best duplicate famous, historical gunshots from the likes of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley.

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About the Author

Jeff Louis: Media Planner, Brand Project Manager, blogger, and aspiring writer. Please leave a comment or get in touch with Jeff on Twitter. As always, thank you for reading!

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