With shows like “Pawn Stars” and “Swamp People,” History has made itself over as the most successful purveyor of unscripted programming on cable. Now, on the eve of its first airing of a scripted effort, the original miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, debuting Memorial Day, and its first dramatic skein, “Vikings,” set to air next year, the network is widening its scope. Nancy Dubuc, president and general manager of History and Lifetime, spoke with Christy Grosz about the difficulty in balancing historical drama and fact, the differences in identifying good reality and good fiction, and History’s abortive first attempt at a scripted original, “The Kennedys.”
CG: Why was now the right time for scripted series?
ND: I don’t think there was necessarily a date we were targeting — I wish we could schedule it the way I schedule everything else on my calendar (laughs). One of our aspirations was to be able to do original historical drama under our own banner. It really became, “What is the right title? What is the right time? What are the right economics?” We were fortunate for a lot of these things to collide at the same time, which opened the door for a new opportunity.
CG: Are there many other off-net series like (HBO’s) “Band of Brothers,” which you had a lot of success with, that would work for History? It seems like that must have been part of the motivation in getting into scripted.
ND: The reality is (that) our original (unscripted) programs (“Pawn Stars,” “Swamp People”) are higher rated than most of the off-net programs in all of cable, so the base of my original programming is a far stronger platform than off-net. We wanted to be that kind of mature powerhouse before we (launched a scripted series). There were plenty of opportunities for us to go out there and do drama in various forms over the past five to seven years, but they were based on economic models devised to be the most attractive to us as possible, and that doesn’t always translate to the highest quality premium project you can get your hands on. For me, that first time we go out, we have to go out big.
CG: So this is an opportunity to create a network event, with talent like Costner and Paxton in “Hatfields & McCoys?”
ND: We’ve had tremendous success with big-event programming through the years, mostly in nonfiction in terms of “America: The Story of Us,” “Gettysburg,” “102 Minutes That Changed America.” When we get behind (something) and make an event out of it, our marketing chops and our platform ability become apparent. The Hollywood community recognizes there’s going to be an opportunity in the kind of projects we’ll do that most studios and networks won’t do, or aren’t doing, because of the marketplace. And that opens up a tremendous opportunity for us to be able to associate our brand with those names and faces.
CG: The network had an earlier experience in scripted programming with “The Kennedys,” which ultimately got derailed and landed at Starz. What did you learn from that experience?
ND: It’s never about just one show. “The Kennedys” was nominated for 10 Emmy Awards. I think that sums it up.
CG: Does balancing fiction and nonfiction create a particular challenge for a network like History?
ND: Factual accuracy is most important to our brand. When endeavoring to do historical drama or historical fiction, the audience is smart enough to know that dialogue has to be written, but the authenticity and the spirit of the dialogue must stay as true and as pure to the time as you can make it. Wherever the historical record can be followed, it should be.
CG: The audience for any show is much smaller than it was even five years ago — do you define a hit differently than you used to?
ND: A hit for me is much bigger than it ever has been. (Viewers) are migrating to various platforms, and one of those platforms is clearly cable, and History is one of the cable platforms that’s excelling. Especially when you look at the top five networks in cable, we’re (one of the few) that’s growing. More often than not, when we’re not in sweeps, it’s not uncommon for us to beat one of the broadcast networks.
CG: You have extensive experience in both reality and scripted programming — is it difficult to go back and forth between the two?
ND: When you sit with the reality team in a development meeting and you’re looking at tapes, what you’re faced with is really the art of seeing it. You just have to be smart enough to spot (a good concept). In drama and scripted programming, when we sit in the development room and we talk about either scripts or pilots that we’ve seen, you have to feel it. That’s a little bit of a different skill, and I’m pushing myself to get used to “feeling” it. So much of drama has to do with making sure the right artisan is in the right chair, and (in) believing in the idea.