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Rewriting History

Cable channel hits on a profitable course, by way of the Arctic Circle.

"Ice Road Truckers," introduced in 2007, hauled the History Channel to a whole new audience. KEN WORONER / History Channel, File
"Ice Road Truckers," introduced in 2007, hauled the History Channel to a whole new audience. KEN WORONER / History Channel, FileRead more

It's a long and twisty trail that leads from Alexander the Great to Larry the Cable Guy, but the History Channel would gladly travel it again.

The cable outlet launched on New Year's Day in 1995 with lofty aspirations befitting its name. It offered a library of documentaries about everything from the Precambrian Era to the Crusades to the Korean War.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have discovered the cure for insomnia.

The subject matter was too dry for TV's heightened narrative style.

"It gets to the general tension of how to exhibit historians who tend to work in nuance and complexity in a medium that favors absolutes and dramatic contrasts," says Paul Steege, an associate professor of history at Villanova University. "There is a conflict there that is not always reconcilable."

And the scholarly stuff was a bust from a business point of view - far too expensive and time-consuming to produce, limited in appeal, and absolutely dormant in repeat airings.

So, the channel cast about for pastimes that were proven crowd-pleasers. For some time, it was sarcastically referred to as "the Hitler Channel" for its seeming fixation with the German military in World War II. It was all Nazis, all the time.

By 2008, when the cable company's name was officially shortened to History, a seismic shift had begun. The previous year, the channel had introduced Ice Road Truckers, which focused on long-haul drivers working in brutal conditions north of the Arctic Circle.

Cheap, macho, and sticky no matter how many times you showed it. On basic cable, that's a stand-up triple.

Ice Road Truckers was manifestly a reality show, although History insisted it was the forerunner of an entirely new genre, "American originals." By any name, it was a hit.

And History saw a clear path into a profitable future.

"We're a ratings-driven business and at some point volume has to come into play," says Nancy Dubuc, the channel's GM, who designed its more contemporary, series-based strategy.

"We easily could have stayed a smaller niche player," says Dubuc, "but the more successful we are in attracting audience and advertisers, the more we can invest in programming."

The roster of "American originals" mushroomed: Ax Men, Mudcats, Big Shrimpin', Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy.

In the last six years, viewership of the channel has nearly doubled. Its most popular series, Pawn Stars (5.8 million), American Pickers (5.2 million), and Swamp People (4.6 million), draw more viewers than some prime-time network shows. They draw more male viewers than almost all network shows.

History's lineup is flypaper to younger men (ages 18 to 34). The channel ranks second in cable only to ESPN. And advertisers will pay a premium to reach that demographic, which is harder to find on TV than Jimmy Hoffa.

Those profits, in turn, go to pay for prestige programming like Vietnam, an ambitious HD project, and Gettysburg, the 3D Civil War extravaganza produced by Tony and Ridley Scott that won four Emmys.

The channel still takes scorn for making a mockery of its mandate.

But History isn't the first cable outlet to change on the fly in pursuit of better numbers.

"MTV is a great example of a channel that branded itself and then saw the TV landscape shift," says Matt McAllister, professor of media studies at Penn State. "You can only hope the original meaning in your logo doesn't mean so much. The M in MTV, of course, stands for Music. But they don't really play music anymore. It's almost as if the M is meaningless in the era of Jersey Shore."

So, just how flexible are the History boundaries?

"Five years ago, I would have said you absolutely may not do reality competition shows; now we have two," says Dubuc, referring to Full Metal Jousting and Top Shot. "So I'm leery of naming things we'll never do."

A wise resolution. Shortly after this interview, the channel announced it would venture for the first time in 2013 into scripted drama series with Vikings, the adventures of Ragnar Lodbrock.

History is always evolving.

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