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On the Right Side of History

Cabler's honcho Dirk Hoogstra talks about building a brand on the back of reality

It’s hard to be on the wrong side of History these days. Early this year the cabler sliced through the original content noise with big ratings for its shows “Vikings” and “The Bible” with numbers (11.4 million for “The Bible,” 5 million for “Vikings”) broadcasters would envy. But that success doesn’t mean Dirk Hoogstra, who was just elevated to the exec VP and general manager post at History and H2, is getting cocky; to him, the network still rests on a foundation of reality shows and has a long way to go before it competes with premium channels. But, as he told Randee Dawn for Variety, that is definitely the goal.

NBC passed on its “Hatfields & McCoys” pilot, while you did such gangbusters with your “Hatfields & McCoys” mini last year. Do you think there’s a fundamental disconnect between what broadcast sees as viable for originals and what cable does?

I think so. We’re clearly a defined brand, and broadcast networks are trying to please primarily female-skewing, very broad audiences. We have a much more clearly defined parameters in what to make regarding scripted pilots, and for them it can be a lot more complicated.

So what are your top reasons for making a miniseries?

Branding is one of the top reasons. Having Bill Paxton and Kevin Costner all over the place, associated with the History brand — it’s hard to measure the value of that. We can get CPMs on these shows we can’t get in reality shows. All of our scripted stuff is layered on top of a wildly successful reality business, and that’s the foundation for everything we do.

Why do you think the mini is having such a renaissance?

It worked, so everybody wants a piece of it. We have a couple of projects written as miniseries on the scripted side, but if they’re successful we have bibles for subsequent seasons. A miniseries as a backdoor pilot for a series is the model we prefer.

How did the success of “The Vikings” and “The Bible” assist in building up the network’s scripted branding reputation in the end?

It’s a good start. I’m not convinced yet that a really big consumer base thinks of us as a go-to destination for high-quality scripted programming. That kind of message and perception takes a couple of years to sink in.

Success seems to breed micromanaging. How do you avoid that?

It’s part of our culture to take swings and be creative. It’s a culture where we can try things and sometimes we’re successful and sometimes we fail — and we’re really OK with that. We don’t overanalyze these things.

Another consequence of success on cable is channels think they should become general entertainment networks. Any risk you’ll do that and change your name to Hystery?

We’re never going to do that. We have broadened out and embraced entertainment value to our shows, but they’ve got to be History shows and connect to our brand. When I got into this business I thought the general entertainment guys had a huge advantage over cable programmers, who I thought were confined. But now that I work with this brand, it’s great to have something specific to connect to.

How much of the overall perception of success for a series comes from how well it performs overseas?

We have a robust international business and joint venture relationships all over the world, but my focus is on building successful series here. The benefit of our success here is there’s a halo effect with our relationships internationally. So we see that as the big win, creating content here in the States and utilizing that content with partnerships all over the world.

But how much of the overseas sales value factors into whether a series gets made or not?

For us, No. 1 is always the creative — is this the right project for History. But we are a business, we’re trying to do as well as we can and it’s case-by-case. There are some things that are license deals for us, and some things we wholly own, and everything in-between. If we fall in love with a project we’ll find a way to make it work, but the first thing is: Will this move the needle in the States?

What strategies do you employ to defray production costs?

We look at all of our deals on a case-by-case basis. No two are identical. It’s a negotiation every time. We try to control costs without sacrificing quality: “Vikings” is a license deal for us — it’s shot in Ireland and the post is done in Canada, so Irish-Canadian tax incentives help benefit us there. There’s a lot of ways to make these shows and get that really high quality that’s also on a budget that’s not insane.

How has the development process for non-scripted shows evolved?

There was a flurry a few years ago of formats that were coming out of the U.K., and then all these Scandinavian formats were getting snapped up, and for a while there was stuff coming out of Israel. Over the last year or two it has really moved away from that format business and into the docu-soap character-driven series, less about heavy formats. Ultimately, people want something that feels different and has good storytelling with characters they care about.

When you start giving audiences bigger and better productions, they come to expect them. Do you see that as a pressure or a challenge?

A challenge. Our scripted has to be executed at the very highest level. Consumers don’t give you a break, they don’t care what your budgets are, they just expect that if it’s scripted it’s got to look like every other scripted project on broadcast or pay TV. We have to execute at the very highest levels, every time.

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