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History lessons (for finding TV hits)

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Ice Road Truckers | SPECIAL DELIVERY Ice Road Truckers spun out from a popular episode of History's Modern Marvels to become a standalone hit
Ken Woroner

1. Home is where the hits are.
When she was first tasked with reinventing the History Channel back in 2007, Nancy Dubuc simply turned to the net’s reality show Modern Marvels for the next big thing. Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men were spun off from two popular Marvels episodes, and have since become two of the net’s highest-rated shows. ”People make things more complicated than they need to be,” says Dubuc, 41. ”We have a tendency as an industry to overcomplicate things and to look for too many guarantees.”

2. Everything has a history.
Turns out it’s pretty easy to stay faithful to the History brand while coming up with programs that captivate the audience. Pawn Stars — the network’s biggest success and, with 6.4 million viewers weekly, currently the most watched show on cable — is a prime example: ”It’s a core history show with a really sexy title,” says Dubuc of the series, which follows the proprietors of a Las Vegas pawn shop. ”The objects are all artifacts through history, and we bring out cool facts. Why did it end up in that place?” It’s the same for Swamp People, another unlikely hit that was inspired by an obscure magazine called Garden & Gun. (The History staff read an article about alligator wrestling, one thing led to another, and the rest is, er, history.) ”You see these cultures that we forgot exist but are what this country was built on,” she says. ”This is where we began — the bayou, the far reaches of Alaska, the frontiers of Oregon.”

3. Keep your piehole shut.
Dubuc used to talk publicly about her development slate, until she began seeing umpteen copycats of History hits. ”That trained me to stop talking. It does a tremendous disservice to the audience! It circles back to our true responsibility to deliver great TV. And great TV isn’t a rip-off of somebody else’s great TV.” Hear, hear.

4. Celebrate failure.
Dubuc says she’s been known to make champagne toasts to some of History’s nonstarters. ”I do that to prove a point. We have to be able to look at ourselves and say, ‘I would have done it absolutely the same way, but the audience ruled.’ We are in a 50 percent business, at best,” she explains. ”When you can’t embrace the failure and learn from it, that’s when you stop trying.” Although the network scrapped its first foray into long-form programming — the controversial miniseries The Kennedys, which ultimately aired on ReelzChannel — Dubuc and her team have not given up on the miniseries genre. They’re developing a multiparter about the Hatfields and the McCoys that will star Kevin Costner. ”We’ve been able to attract the stars because they understand and respect what the brand means,” she says. ”They feel safe in it.”

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