Top History channel exec will hold dual positions

Having rewritten History, Nancy Dubuc’s next challenge will be a bit more daunting.

Dubuc takes on oversight of Lifetime Networks as its flagship cabler continues its struggle with relevancy — and competing in an increasingly crowded field.

Once the top-rated network in all of basic cable, Lifetime saw its fortunes drop as such rival cablers as Bravo and TLC got into the general entertainment game and started stealing away female auds with a steady diet of compelling reality fare.

“It’s gotten competitive,” said Horizon Media’s Brad Adgate, whose firm’s clients include Lifetime parent entity A&E Television Networks. “Cable networks have seen (Lifetime’s) success and have gone after that market. While they’re still the leader in ratings for that particular target, cable repositioning and launches to go after them have chipped away at that.”

The long-expected Dubuc announcement came Tuesday as A&E TV Networks prepped for its upfront presentation, set for May 5 at New York’s IAC Building.

Dubuc will serve as president and general manager of Lifetime Networks, while continuing as president/g.m. of AETN’s History channels. Dubuc’s oversight of Lifetime has been expected since February ( Daily Variety , Feb. 5), when previous Lifetime honcho Andrea Wong announced her exit.

Nancy is one of the most dynamic executives working in television (and) has great respect for the power of the Lifetime brand,” said Abbe Raven, prexy and CEO of AETN, to whom Dubuc reports.

Although Dubuc now has oversight of both History and Lifetime, Raven said the exec’s “focus and priority will be on Lifetime.” That means Dubuc’s No. 2 at History, David McKillop, will likely be charged with keeping that channel humming as she focuses on a Lifetime overhaul.

Dubuc’s job expansion comes as History wraps its most-watched month of all time. The channel is riding high on the success of original series like “Ax Men,” “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars,” as well as Sunday’s preem of docu mini “America: The Story of Us.”

Longtime History channel fans have criticized Dubuc for moving the channel away from its original charter and more into the reality TV space. But it’s worked, and Lifetime could use a bit of that mojo.

The femme-centric channel’s recent attempts at bolstering its programming mix were met with so-so results: Scripted series “Army Wives” and “Drop Dead Diva” have performed decently for the cabler, but sitcoms like “Rita Rocks” didn’t move the needle.

Some of the channel’s woes stem from missing the boat on the reality TV revolution. Lifetime’s plans to dramatically increase its unscripted output hasn’t resulted in a hit, and its much-ballyhooed acquisition of “Project Runway” is performing worse than the show did on its original net, Bravo.

Lifetime, which once branded itself as “Television for Women,” has struggled in its attempts to still be all things for all women (“Army Wives” and “Project Runway” aren’t necessarily the most compatible of shows, for example). And yet, its still targeting half the population — giving it limited universal appeal.

That’s opened the door for cablers to pick away viewers in a wide variety of categories, including reality, food, home and lifestyle.

Not only is Lifetime facing off with decent-sized cablers such as Bravo, TLC and E! — all of which target more women than men with saucy, personality-driven reality fare — but younger-skewing Oxygen is making noise with fare such as “Tori and Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood.” Even SoapNet has gotten into the originals business.

And Scripps’ band of channels (Food Network, HGTV, the new Cooking Channel) are stealing away women looking for more specialized programming.

Disney/ABC, which is a part-owner of AETN with Hearst Corp. and NBC Universal, also may have grabbed a larger portion of the upscale female pie as it turned more femme-centric in the mid-2000s. And up next, Lifetime will have to compete with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, as well as a Martha Stewart makeover of Hallmark Channel.

But A&E TV Networks has found success in making over both A&E and History — two nets previously considered old and narrowly focused. And Raven believes Dubuc can find a way to grow the Lifetime brand as well.

“Nancy’s very good at putting her finger on the pulse of pop culture,” Raven said. “She understands how to program to a particular demo, and she’s also good at knowing how to use multiple platforms. The beauty of Lifetime is that it still resonates with audiences. It’s really about finding types of programming that speak to women.”

Lifetime ended 2009 far out of the top 10 in primetime — down 20% among viewers and down 17% in adults 18-49 vs. 2008, despite the “Project Runway” acquisition.

Raven said she’s not concerned about Lifetime’s median age — which hovers around 47, younger than the Big 3 broadcast nets — and is more interested in simply attracting a bigger tent to the net.

“(Lifetime should) reach a large number of women on a nightly basis,” she said.

Dubuc, who has run History since 2007, will handle both History and Lifetime’s brands, including programming, consumer marketing, strategic planning, publicity and brand development.

“I am incredibly honored to now lead the Lifetime team,” Dubuc said. “Lifetime and Lifetime Movie Network are two of the most powerful and evocative brands on the media landscape.”

Before History, Dubuc was senior VP of programming at A&E Network, which she joined in March 2003.

Wong had served as CEO of Lifetime Networks since 2007 (that title has now been eliminated, as it was left over from when Lifetime Networks was an autonomous entity.) Wong departs at the end of this month when her three-year contract expires.

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