History Channel Takes 'Refresher' Course
History "refreshes" by linking content to the human story

February 27, 2008
By Anthony Crupi

If nothing else, the documentary Life After People demonstrated that history ends only when there’s no consciousness left to record it. As long as humans persist in their daily upheavals, history will continue to be made and documented; the tidal sweep of human affairs is not limited to grainy newsreels.

It’s this construct of “living history” that Nancy Dubuc will be trying to get across in the next several weeks, when the network she leads undergoes what she’s calling a “refresh.” As executive vp and general manager of The History Channel, Dubuc is looking to upend the notion that her network is defined by long-ago wars and powdered wigs. In April, the net will launch a new brand campaign designed to “bring a face to history,” Dubuc said, one that will build on a series of print ads that began running in trade publications this month.

“We want to communicate that history is not all about rote recitation of dates and timelines and facts and dead people,” Dubuc said. “It’s really about stories…the stories that tell us who we are and where we are going.”

In anticipation of the rejiggered concept, the name of the network has been stripped of the article and the noun, leaving History standing alone. That simplification is echoed by a new logo treatment that isolates the channel’s uppercase “H.” The campaign is an extension of History’s American Originals concept, which trumpets “a new genre celebrating the frontier spirit.” Series that fall into that category include adrenalized shows like Ice Road Truckers and the upcoming Ax Men (March 9 at 10 p.m.).

The American Originals series depict the lives and livelihoods of the rust collar class, the modern-day frontiersmen who are a living link to the past. “We’ve forgotten that this country was literally built by the hands of those who came before us,” Dubuc said. “We’re so settled into our cubicle culture that we forget that there are still people out there putting it all on the line.”

Since Dubuc stepped in at History, having moved over from the top development spot at sister net A&E a year ago, more younger viewers have been tuning in than ever before. According to Nielsen Media Research data, in 2007, History upped its average delivery of adults 18-34 by 34 percent versus the previous year, while raising its profile among viewers 18-49 by 10 percent. The rejuvenation of History hasn’t come at the expense of older viewers. Last year, the net finished 11th in prime-time among adults 25-54 with 538,000, an increase of 4 percent. Already, advertisers are taking notice. “We’re writing a lot more business with younger categories, advertisers who we haven’t worked with before,” said Mel Berning, executive vp, ad sales at A&E Television Networks. New clients include Toyota, Quiznos and Burger King, as well as some tech companies.

“We’ve done a good chunk of tech business that we haven’t done before, some things with Microsoft [Xbox] and Cisco,” Berning added. “These are things we wouldn’t have touched a year ago.”

While Berning began making the rounds of clients as early as last fall, he’s still finalizing History’s upfront pitch. Among the new elements History will unveil this spring are 10 new original series, between 10 and 12 new specials and four online strips.

Buyers may be particularly interested in History’s online exertions, as they allow for the development of much more customized buys. “Online helps programmers build a brand within the brand, and I can see History developing some unique digital extensions for its upcoming specials,” said François Lee, vp activation director at MediaVest. “It’s not just a matter of revisiting their brand as a network…Each program is a brand unto itself.”

Of course, even evolution has its detractors. Some cable operators grumble that shows like Truckers don’t match History’s mission statement. Dubuc said the changes are more subtle: “This is not a sweeping redefinition of who we are. History is still history.”

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