Until Nancy Dubuc arrived and made History improbably hot, the TV network was little more than a place for old men to watch war movies. Now Dubuc is trying to freshen Lifetime, another outlet with a moldy reputation.
The corporate parent of both networks assigned Dubuc, one of its top executives, to see if the once-mighty network for women can be a player again. Dubuc takes over a strong brand that's not exactly destination viewing — just as History was when she assumed control three years ago.
This summer, the tandem of "American Pickers" and "Pawn Stars" is making Mondays on History one of the hottest nights on cable TV. The treasure-trawling shows are barely a year old, have inspired at least one imitator and just led History to its most-watched three months ever.
"Did we think these would do quite as well?" Dubuc said. "I'd be lying if I said yes."
She was struck by how easy and fun it was to watch both series when she first saw them. The memorably titled "Pawn Stars" follows Rick Harrison, his father and his son as the three generations run the real-life "Gold & Silver Pawn Shop" outside of Las Vegas. Each episode shows the Harrisons negotiating with customers over buying all kinds of oddities, and lets viewers decide who is ultimately being ripped off.
The shows are a long way from documentaries on the War of 1812.
"We knew that bringing a level of entertainment value to the subject of history was the key to our success," said Dubuc, who worked at a handful of other jobs at the A&E Television Networks before taking over History.
"Ice Road Truckers," History's series about dangerous winter driving in northern Canada, signaled the new direction when it premiered in June 2007. It's entertaining, but really could be shown anywhere. "Pawn" and "Pickers" feel right at home. Along with fun character studies, viewers learn a little about history, of companies and products that once dominated a market but disappeared.
In one "American Pickers" episode, you learn why boys' bicycles are more valuable antiques than girls': Because, boys tended to wreck their bikes and girls didn't.
It's probably not a coincidence that Spike next month will premiere "Scrappers," a series about the Brooklyn scrap metal business, where "our heroes scour the streets to find their treasure, from old appliances to abandoned cars and discarded building materials," the network said.
History has its own competition show: "Top Shot" features 16 marksmen showing who is best with weapons used through history, from sling shots to muskets. Dubuc describes the new series "Chasing Mummies," which debuts July 14, as a "docu-soap" that follows the famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass as he tries to find meaningful Egyptian relics.
War of 1812 documentaries still have their place, though, usually during the day or on weekends. The network also filmed an expensive American history project this spring and has another in the works on the Civil War.
History appears to have pulled off the delicate job of adding new fans without alienating the old ones. The network's audience is still about two-thirds male, but the median age has dropped four years since 2006, the Nielsen Co. said.
"Anything that attracts people to historical subjects, unless they contain truly distorting and disturbing messages, is good in my opinion," said Joyce Appleby, co-director of the History News Service.
Dubuc is light on specifics, but she's bringing to Lifetime the same mindset and creative team — the one that molded a four-minute video that Wolfe and Fritz shot of themselves into a successful series.
The A&E Television Networks last year bought Lifetime, previously a joint venture among The Walt Disney Co., Hearst Corp. and General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal. Dubuc became president of the Lifetime Networks this spring.
It was only eight years ago that Lifetime, with an average of 2.25 million viewers in prime time, was the nation's most popular cable network. This year, Lifetime is ranked No. 17 with 1.1 million viewers (History is No. 6 with 1.56 million), Nielsen said.
Where did all those viewers go?
Lifetime became stagnant, said Tim Brooks, who was head of research at the network before leaving in 2007. Competitors Oxygen and We TV chipped away at young women viewers, making Lifetime seem more dowdy.
"Women were beginning to say, 'There's too much heaviness here. We want lightness,'" Brooks said. "Lifetime wasn't going there and others were."
Lifetime's signature movies, the ones that showed empowered women fighting off disease, predators and just plain bad taste in men, dimmed in quality and began to seem more cheaply produced, said Margaret Loesch, a veteran television executive and Lifetime viewer.
Lifetime's schedule now is dominated by reruns of "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." Its best-known reality series, "Project Runway," was taken from Bravo in a bidding war and its viewership is plummeting. Lifetime's top-scripted series, "Army Wives," is in its fourth season. Conspicuously absent are the snappy, nonfiction series such as "Pawn Stars."
So, Dubuc has plenty of room in which to work.
The first three series she ordered in development are each scripted women cop shows, but Lifetime will likely just pick one of the three to move forward. She would not discuss other ideas.
"I admire what History has done," said Loesch, who launched the Hallmark Channel and is president of the Hub, a new children's network beginning this fall. "They've presented their genre in very relevant terms for the audience, and that's the opportunity that Lifetime has."
The A&E Television Networks can only hope that History repeats itself.