Last year, the History channel had a growth spurt, gaining hundreds of thousands of viewers while most of its competitors struggled to grow at all. This year, even more remarkably, the channel did it again.
That makes the network’s executives a subject of both envy and sympathy in the television business. They swiftly took History from top 20 status on cable to top five, a feat rarely if ever accomplished — and now they have to keep it there.
"This is going to be a dance with the big boys," said Nancy Dubuc, the general manager of the channel, in an interview.
The final ratings for 2011 will show that History, a unit of A&E Television Networks, attracted more middle-aged men than any other cable channel except ESPN. Among all prime-time viewers, History was No. 5 on cable this year, up from No. 8 last year. The four bigger channels are USA, the Disney Channel, TNT, and ESPN.
Unlike USA and TNT, History has no scripted drama. Unlike ESPN, it has no football or basketball. What History has is reality TV — and its success also attests to the success of documentary-style dramas and competitions featuring average people.
Its biggest show for the past two years has been Pawn Stars, about a family that buys and sells watches, necklaces, and artifacts. Just last week, History scheduled a spinoff, Cajun Pawn Stars. But the channel is also considering shows that may appear on TNT or even ESPN, like a Hatfields and McCoys miniseries and a jousting competition. The goal, it seems, is to steal market share from the other big boys.
History has been able to declare its "best year ever" for five years in a row because it took what could be seen as a radical turn away from its brand nearly five years ago.
Originally a child of the A&E channel, History was known for World War II specials and documentary series like Modern Marvels when Dubuc arrived from A&E in January, 2007. "We said to ourselves, we have to create appointment viewing TV," she said. Six months later, an old episode of Modern Marvels about truck drivers became a series, Ice Road Truckers, that set ratings records for the channel.
Ice Road Truckers gave confidence to the History staff and gave a signal to viewers and would-be producers that the channel was changing into something new and more explicitly entertaining. The channel’s slogan became "History Made Every Day." For all the jokes about History ignoring the past, it worked. More men turned to the channel for what Dubuc sometimes calls "their version of romance television," and more advertisers, too."We started to show that History was a great alternative to sports in attracting upscale men," said her boss and mentor, Abbe Raven, the chief executive of A&E Television Networks. As advertising buyers spent more on History, "we took those revenues and invested them in programming to build the future."
The series Pawn Stars and Swamp People, about alligator hunters in Louisiana, started in 2009 and 2010, respectively, giving the channel its giant growth spurts. This fall, when Michael Nathanson, a media analyst for Nomura Equity Research, wanted to tease out trends in cable viewing, he compared the 2007-08 season with the 2010-11 season and discovered that History had gained more ratings ground than any other single channel.
"Go figure," Nathanson wrote in his report. He said the gains were driven "largely by the success of Pawn Stars," which regularly drew more than 5 million viewers this year.
"This proves to us the power of one hit show and how it can transform a network," he added.
History executives contend that the ratings gains are because of not one show but many, including history specials like Gettysburg and Vietnam in HD (yes, there is still some literal history on History) and reality competition shows like Top Shot. But they acknowledge that they need to breed new hits as Pawn Stars inevitably starts to fade.
"Nancy drills into me every time I see her, ‘Be first, be best,’" said Brent Montgomery, the executive producer of Pawn Stars. He is now trying to dream up a "real life sitcom" for the channel.
Another producer, Craig Piligian, who makes Top Shot and Big Shrimpin’ for History, has another show on the way called Full Metal Jousting, a production that harks back to the Renaissance, or at least Renaissance fairs. Piligian said his pitch was as follows: "Guys about 6-foot-2 wearing 180 pounds of armor on them, running at each other on 2,000-pound horses at 35 miles per hour and hitting each other with a pole that doesn’t break."
"They like that it’s loud, it’s promotable, and it’s different," he said.
Such reality shows with subtle nods to history are repeatable and are exportable around the world, where A&E Networks and other cable channel owners are growing faster than in the United States. History recently rechristened the smaller History International channel as H2, a home for more of the straight history programming that it used to highlight.
To burnish its brand and further diversify its schedule, History also is beginning to finance documentaries, including Page One, an independently made film about the New York Times that will run on the channel next year. Meanwhile, on History, Dubuc will continue to stretch the brand name; her team is considering ordering other scripted shows to complement the Hatfields and McCoys, which will have its premiere in the spring.
History’s revenues are not disclosed, but to date most of its growth has come from charging more for ads, not from charging more to distributors who carry the channel. That will come later, when A&E renegotiates its contracts with distributors. It will aim to have History become a must-have channel, as ESPN has been for years.
"In the same way that we created this artifactual entertainment genre within History with Pawn Stars and American Pickers, I think that we will create new genres," Raven said.
She says she believes Dubuc can also do that at Lifetime, the company’s struggling channel for female viewers. Dubuc said Lifetime, which lost 11 percent of its 18 to 49-year-old audience this year, is moving out of its "trial and error" phase and is about to unveil a new brand identity. But she said the channel she loses more sleep over is History.
"The metrics on Lifetime are more in my favor than the metrics on History," she said. "But we have an organization that believes in these teams and understands the challenges."
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