History, Lifetime and A&E don’t exactly cater to the same auds, but they share a philosophy and corporate culture that supports producers and encourages creative risk.
Thom Beers’ first series for History, “Ice Road Truckers,” illustrates the kinds of risks that have propelled the networks’ combined success. When Nancy Dubuc, president-g.m. for History and Lifetime, asked him to develop a series based on an old episode of “Modern Marvels,” he had major doubts.
“I thought, ‘It’s about guys driving, alone, in a truck, in a straight line going 15 miles an hour.’ But Nancy said (referring to Beers’ Discovery hit “Deadliest Catch”), ‘If you can crack a boat, you can crack a truck,’ ” recalls Beers, who also exec produces History’s “Ax Men,” A&E’s “Storage Wars,” “Storage Wars: Texas” and “American Hoggers.”
Dubuc’s real risk wasn’t the subject matter, it was leading History into uncharted territory: reality television.
“They were still kind of mired in old-school documentary films about World War II, so it was a huge risk,” says Beers, who is now CEO at FremantleMedia North America. “Believe me, when they announced it they heard from charter members, cable operators and everybody saying it wasn’t a History Channel show. Nancy came out, very smartly, calling it ‘living history’ and ‘history made every day.’ Clearly that moment was a big opportunity, and she didn’t miss a beat.”
“Ice Road Truckers” paved the way for History hits such as “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers.”
Another risk was inviting Craig Piligian — exec producer of History’s “Top Shot” and “Only in America” — to tackle Lifetime original telepic. “Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy,” which aired in 2011. Upcoming films include “Abducted: The Carlina White Story,” set for the fall, and “Whisper of Fear.”
“It’s different creatively for History, A&E and Lifetime, but they all have the same philosophy of how to work with producers,” Piligian says.
He says Dubuc thought the skills required to produce engaging reality series would create a viable financial model for TV movies by reducing costs, staying on schedule and showcasing strong characters. It seems to be working.
“Nancy’s very smart and brave,” Piligian says. “She has a lot of guts and says, ‘Let’s try it.’ Look at ‘Hatfields & McCoys’: That was gigantic for them, and it was a big roll of the dice.”
Producers credit Dubuc’s sharp instincts, sound business sense and decisiveness for the swiftness with which productions move from concept to air. Once it was decided to turn Lifetime’s successful TV movie “The Client List” into a series, things moved fast.
“We put the show up very quickly. It was amazing how fast they were able to make decisions, give us answers, get promos done, get the billboards up and get the show out,” says series star and exec producer Jennifer Love Hewitt. “They really go above and beyond in getting things out there and making sure people are going to see them.”
“The Client List” is one of the latest original series that is helping Lifetime build up its scripted fare and give it a more balanced programming slate, as well as adding a more risque look to the brand.
“It’s a whole new thing for them to branch out and say they’re going to sex it up a bit,” she says, while citing A&E’s original series “Longmire,” “The Glades,” and “Breakout Kings” as additional examples of what sister network A&E is doing well.
“There’s a passion for making great TV and that comes from the top down. They know what the needs of their networks are, but they rely on their programming instincts, too,” Beers says. “They’re a class act from the ground up.”