“We were dealing with a brand that is widely embraced, but had reached a barrier,” explains Dubuc, who is 41. “In order to get to that broader audience and really appeal on a more commercial basis, we had to break through just thinking of ourselves as The History Channel and instead think of ourselves as a competitive network amongst the top networks in cable, delivering entertaining products about history.” True to her word, History is now a top ten network in the key demographic of adults 25-54.
Dubuc’s position at History comes after her tenure as head of development at A&E, which she helped transform from a sleepy arts network into a “real life” programming ratings juggernaut.
When Dubuc was at History for less than a month, she looked at all the previous shows that had aired and saw which ones spiked the ratings. She came to a show featuring ice truckers in Alaska, and visualized an entire series about these brave souls.
Dubuc phoned producer Thom Beers. “I said, Thom, we’ve got this show, where these people do this crazy thing. We’ve covered it from a technology standpoint, we’ve covered it from a process, sort of how-to standpoint, but I think there’s something here and that these guys are still making history today. These guys still represent the spirit of the frontiersman that created this country, so they are the blood and veins of our nation and our culture and they’ve got stories to tell and that is just as much history as watching black-and-white footage from decades ago.”
Looking back is still a big part of History but, under Dubuc’s leadership, it is done in an artistic fashion. History’s most ambitious project to date is the upcoming America The Story of Us. “We spent some time thinking about the stories in American history that haven’t been told,” says the head of the network. “And then we asked, has anyone really told the entire story from Jamestown to Obama?” Dubuc hired Jane Root, former president of Discovery, and asked her to look at America as an invention.
For WWII in HD, the network’s ten-hour landmark series, History spent 2½ years canvasing the globe for color footage never before seen by most people, converted it to HD and preserved it for future generations. The resulting television event, told through the letters and diaries of twelve real-life characters, produced a completely different visceral, emotional and intimate experience than viewers have ever had before.
On a lighter note, History’s newest hit series, Pawn Stars, takes viewers inside the doors of the only family-run pawn shop in Las Vegas, where customers can find anything from a 15th-century Samurai sword to a Picasso painting. And, History recently launched another huge ratings success with American Pickers, which follows two professional “pickers” as they travel through small town America unearthing relics of historical, collectible, and pop culture value from everyday people with stories to tell.
Dubuc’s own history began at the family dormitories at New York’s Fordham University where, when her parents were just 19 and her father was attending school there, Nancy was born. “I grew up with a ‘just do it’ attitude, instilled by my parents,” she recounts.
This can-do spirit has no doubt lent to her success as the head of the new History, as has the right combination of creativity and business acumen. When asked about whether she characterizes herself as an artist outright, she is frank. “When I think, “Am I an artist?” I clearly wouldn’t put myself there, but others might. We’re telling stories and storytellers are artists in their own right. But on a personal note, I would say that cooking is my artistic release.”