History's Dirk Hoogstra on the Network's Scripted Push, Jay Leno and the Lack of Creativity in Unscripted (Q&A)

11:00 AM PST 05/01/2014 by Marisa Guthrie
Christopher Patey

As "Vikings" plunders Thursdays, the channel's executive vp and general manager reveals a plan to lure younger viewers and thrive in a "super-saturated" reality market: "It's never been more challenging to launch an unscripted hit."

A version of this story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Dirk Hoogstra was among the architects of History's launch into scripted programming with the 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. Now the exec, who last June was promoted to the top job running the A+E-owned network and overseeing its 84 employees, is charging full bore into the genre. Oscar winner Adrien Brody headlines Houdini, set to bow this fall, and there are multiple projects in the pipeline, including the eight-hour Revolutionary War miniseries Sons of Liberty; the World War II limited series The Liberator; and Texas Rising, about the rise of the Texas Rangers lawmen. The latter, a co-production of A+E Studios and ITV and executive produced by Thinkfactory's Leslie Greif (who also was behind Hatfields), boasts an A-list cast (Bill Paxton, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta, Jeffrey Dean Morgan). "In some ways, it's easier to develop the scripted projects," says Hoogstra, sitting in his fifth-floor office at A+E Networks headquarters on East 45th Street in Manhattan. "We can do big, iconic history with a male skew and there's a lot of stuff to choose from." For History, its factual programming provides built-in market testing for scripted plays. When viewers responded to specials on Scandinavian seafaring warriors, Hoogstra knew there would be an audience for Vikings, his first scripted series, which is the most watched program on cable in its Thursday time slot (3.4 million viewers).

But the network's bread-and-butter is still reality stalwarts like Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers, even if those are experiencing ratings erosion in a saturated market. "You can still find hits," he says. "But you've got to work really hard to find something unique." Still, the one-time home of Hitler documentaries is now the No. 2 cable net among men (trailing only ESPN) and airs in more than 160 countries. Hoogstra, 42, a married father of two daughters, 8 and 6, landed his first industry job in 1995, after graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in psychology. He was hired by Discovery to do data entry. The psych background, he laughs, "helps in any corporate environment."

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How much scripted material would you like to have on History?

We're looking at roughly 30 hours a year of scripted. It's not set in stone, but that's probably going to end up being two series and two minis. Going into any given upfront season, we want to have one big, scripted event that we can talk about and sell. Money falling out of broadcast [network advertising] is earmarked as premium dollars. And without scripted projects, you can't [get those dollars], even with the biggest hit reality show.

Pawn Stars gets more viewers than Vikings, but advertisers are still going to pay more to be on Vikings, right?

Definitely. We get a great CPM [cost per thousand viewer rate] because we have had a good track record, starting with Hatfields & McCoys and then The Bible and Vikings [last year].

Is there crossover between the more affluent scripted audience and viewers watching unscripted?

There is some crossover. [Scripted] does bring in a lot of viewers who don't normally watch the channel. So we see that as a big opportunity to spread them into some of our other shows. I want it to get younger. Hatfields' median age was 50. The dream for me is a really solid, male-skewing 18-to-49 number and have that demo be the driver. We have some episodes of [Vikings] that are going up 60 percent [after seven days of delayed viewing]. That's a huge jump.

But monetizing that delayed viewing is still a huge challenge.

It drives me nuts. It's just not there. It's still a [live-plus-3-days] world.

Is there a show that you would like to have on your network?

After seeing True Detective, I was like, "Hmmm, maybe something like that could work here?" You couldn't have cast it better. It was so well executed. I wish I had had that.

That would be an interesting choice for History given the graphic violence.

It's a trickier fit. If somebody asked me, "How is that on-brand?" It would be a little tricker for me to explain that.

So what did you think of HBO's controversial decision to enter True Detective in the Emmys as a drama series rather than a miniseries?

I respect it because it's just so bold. The thing is awesome. And it's going to win. I may have done the same thing. 

History arguably revived the miniseries genre with Hatfields. Now everybody is doing them. Does that surprise you?

I was a little surprised to see the broadcast networks get so into it again. But what I love about TV right now is, it really is a level playing field. If you have the right project on the right night and the right people know about it, you can beat everybody.

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Mark Burnett's The Bible was huge on History. Why did his follow-up, A.D., go to NBC?

We were in discussions to develop it, but I wasn't 100 percent sure. You can't go bigger than the Bible. I wasn't sure it was going to be as big -- are there angels in this one? Does it become purely historical or does it still have the religious aspect? I just wanted to develop it a bit more, and I think Mark was just ready to move faster than that.

Lifetime's Rob Sharenow, who is your A+E colleague, says it's a "horrible time" for the reality genre. Do you agree there is a crisis of creativity?

It's just super-saturated. You had this proliferation of cable networks, all of them doing reality, all of them chasing the same kinds of shows. And consumers got a little overwhelmed. It's never been more challenging to launch a new unscripted hit.

Fremantle's Thom Beers says A+E shouldn't insist on locking up format and distribution rights to shows. Why not share rights with producers who bring you ideas and run shows?

It's a complicated issue. What producers forget is that we subsidize all their failures. We've got to try to keep a robust business and also we have to protect ourselves against whatever's happening with distribution. If something like OTT [over-the-top content] happened tomorrow and we didn't own our own content, we'd be in real trouble. We are always trying to figure out how everybody can win in success. But we also have to plan for the fact that most of the time things don't work.

H2 is more of a pure documentary destination than History. And some of that programming has skewed toward science. Cosmos was an interesting experiment for Fox, critically lauded but very niche.

I think it was an odd choice. When I read that Seth MacFarlane was producing it, I thought they were going to go really broad or bring some interesting comedic value to it. But it was pretty straightforward. To me it felt more PBS.

What do you think of the trend toward scripted reality, like TLC's Sex Sent Me to the ER? Do you think viewers care?

I know that what viewers say they watch and what they actually watch are often different things. I think there's space out there for those kinds of shows; they're probably guilty pleasures for people. But we're really trying to stay aspirational and inspirational. I choose not to get into that salacious territory.

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Performance competition shows are beginning to decline. What's the next new thing in unscripted?

We were pitched a show that's about bear hunting on Kodiak Island in Alaska. It looked like a pretty straightforward hunting show. We said, "Well, what if we treat this more like 'who's hunting whom?' and shoot it like a real suspense film?" We wanted to make it tonally feel a little more cinematic. So we're exploring things like execution and emotional connection. We've ordered a show called Biker Battleground Phoenix. There hasn't been a bike-builder show in a while. We weren't sure if it would be different enough from Top Gear. But Phoenix, Ariz., is a mecca for bike-building. All the builders have these massive egos. It's hyper-competitive. They text each other hate mail. So we'll play up the rivalries. We'll shoot it in a way that makes the bikes look like works of art. So you've got to zig when everybody else is zagging. I don't know that we're sitting around saying, "What's the answer?" as much as, "What can we do that's a little different?"

Speaking of bikes, History has been among the suitors for a show about Jay Leno's garage.

I would love to do something with him. I think it would be great. I am also a car guy, so his garage is my dream come true.

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