Inside Cable Superstar Nancy Dubuc's Plan to Lure Viewers Back to Lifetime

 Brigitte Sire

When Nancy Dubuc arrived at History in early 2007, the cable channel suffered from what she calls PBS syndrome.

“You know, where it feels really good to say you watch it and you know you should watch it,” her eyes widen, “but the reality is, when you’re flipping around, you go to your guilty pleasures — the things that entertain you — instead.” She repositions herself in her spacious Midtown Manhattan office and begins re-enacting the drawn-out ums and blank stares she’d receive when she’d ask people to name their favorite History shows. Four years later, there’s no such hesitation. The network once referred to as the “Hitler channel” for its slate of musty World War II documentaries is now a top-five cable channel with such hits as Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men lining its schedule. It ranks third among young male viewers, behind only ESPN and USA in primetime. But Dubuc, 42, the network’s president and GM, hasn’t had much time for celebrating since she added the same duties at Lifetime to her portfolio nearly a year ago.

These days, she is focused on doing it all over again at Lifetime, formerly a top-rated basic cable network that has plummeted to No. 17 this year in the all-important women 18-49 demographic. Dubuc, who oversees a combined staff of about 150, replaced Andrea Wong, who left the femme-skewing network following a corporate restructuring that lumped Lifetime into the A&E Television Networks Group. Although Wong succeeded in hijacking the Bravo hit Project Runway, the pricey move was widely viewed as a disappointment, resulting in ratings declines and legal troubles for producer the Weinstein Co. Dubuc’s mandate: Bring back the viewers and buzz lost to such younger-skewing networks as Bravo and MTV.

The network’s former head of research, Tim Brooks, doesn’t envy the task. “It’s like turning an ocean liner around in the middle of the East River,” he says of revitalizing Lifetime. “You can’t do it too quickly or too sharply because you risk losing any equity you still have.”

But if Dubuc, who splits time between Los Angeles and New York, is daunted, she isn’t letting on. Nor would it be the 5-foot-11 executive’s style. Talk to any agent or producer who has worked with her, and the first thing you’ll hear is how Dubuc knows exactly what she wants and goes after it. Within six months of taking the Lifetime job, she had about 30 potential reality series, seven scripted options and four movies in development — a dramatic shift from a pipeline she says had no scripted efforts and really only one reality show when she arrived.

Now, she’ll need to be aggressive about pickups, having made public her commitment to add more than 175 hours of original programming to the network this year. Also critical to her is the ability not only to own many of these projects but also to be able to exploit them internationally. Both are new strategies for the network, which, like History before it, is getting a Dubuc makeover on and off the screen.

In recent months, she has been most ambitious in the unscripted genre, where she’s had big ratings success with Coming Home, about surprise reunions between U.S. service personnel and their families. In addition to an unscripted slate that includes Runway, Seriously Funny Kids and — as The Hollywood Reporter can exclusively report — a second season of One Born Every Minute, she’ll add vehicles for the mother of vanished teen Natalee Holloway and TV vet Roseanne Barr.

In November, JD Roth, an executive producer on the Barr project, sent a link to a 90-second video of Barr on her Hawaiian nut farm to whet Dubuc’s appetite. Within an hour, Roth says, he was on the phone with Lifetime hammering out a 16-episode order. “It was boom, boom, boom, done,” he says. “There were five channels that would have bought that show, and we could have been in a bidding war. Nancy was smart enough to not only realize that but also go in for the kill,” Roth adds, still impressed with her speed and decisiveness four months later.

Dubuc is quick to dispel rumors that she plans to turn Lifetime into an all-reality channel. She recently picked up two female-driven scripted cop dramas, Against the Wall and Exit 19, for launch this year, bringing the net’s scripted total from two series to four.

But Dubuc’s biggest impact could be in transforming a programming ethos that still has many dubbing Lifetime the “women in peril” network. She’s the first to admit that Lifetime’s portrayal of women is largely the same as it was when the net launched in 1984.

To hear her tell it, Lifetime’s future programming will revolve around female characters who are at once independent, sexual and empowered. That subtle shift was already on display in Dubuc’s marketing campaign for Army Wives’ high-rated fifth-season premiere, in which the series stars donned form-fitting camouflage garb and pledged allegiance to one another.

“Lifetime before would be, ‘A woman was made to murder somebody’; Lifetime now is, ‘I’m going to murder him if I feel like murdering him,’ ” Dubuc says of a joke told often in the company’s halls.

Similarly important to the married mother of two is the opportunity to stand out in a crowded field that includes Bravo, E! and Oxygen as the brand that “gets it.” Not only are rivals going after a younger audience with shows like Bad Girls Club and the Real Housewives franchise, but she argues that “they represent the bad stereotypes of women.”

Dubuc continues, her volume rising ever so slightly, “I might come home and watch two women fighting and being sort of snarky with each other, but at the end of the day, I’m running a billion-dollar organization, and I’m smart and I know that’s entertaining, but I also need the other.” She revels in the idea of being able to cater to a demo she is actually a part of — a marked change after several years targeting male viewers.

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Dubuc was born in the dorms at New York’s Fordham University to soon-to-be-married students then moved to Rhode Island, where she was raised. After graduating from Boston University in 1991, she scored a job at Christian Science Monitor Television as a desk assistant, then as a line producer. After a few other producing gigs, she was hired in 1999 as director of historical programming at the History Channel. By 2002, she was already on her way up the AETN corporate ladder, taking a series of top programming posts at A&E, where she put on such eyebrow-raising hits as Growing Up Gotti and Dog the Bounty Hunter.

In early 2007, Dubuc assumed control of History, instantly broadening its reach. Total viewership has skyrocketed 72 percent since she arrived, with the net’s 18-49 tune-in up 100 percent. During the same period, four years have been shaved off the channel’s median age (now 48). Advertisers, too, have taken notice, which explains History’s 30 percent spike to $343 million in net ad revenue last year, compared with a half-decade earlier, reports research firm SNL Kagan.

Early in her tenure, Dubuc was poring over History’s ratings and came across a high-rated Modern Marvels episode about ice-road truckers. Wasting no time, she got producer Thom Beers on the phone and persuaded him to turn it into a series. Six months later, Ice Road Truckers was on the air, averaging 3.2 million viewers for its first season.

Before that, her staff was convinced that only specials worked on the channel. “It was: ‘Series don’t work here,’ ‘We can’t do anything in the summer’ and ‘We’ve tried that before,’ ” she recalls.
True to her cage-rattling form, Dubuc launched Truckers in June; it not only found a big audience but also — almost as important for her — changed minds internally. (Specials remain part of Dubuc’s programming mix.)

“It’s just astounding,” gushes Jane Root, producer of History’s miniseries America: The Story of Us, who admits Dubuc was “fearsome to compete against” when the Nutopia chief ran rival Discovery.
“It’s not like she went out and bought huge Hollywood shows; she innovated, creating genres that everyone else has copied.” Proof: More than 10 Pawn Stars derivatives have hit the air since the History series launched in 2009, including TLC’s Pawn Queens and truTV’s Hardcore Pawn.

The bold moves continued with Ax Men and Top Gear, earning Dubuc a reputation for being a highly respected risk-taker in an otherwise conservative industry. It’s a quality her boss and mentor, A&E Television Networks CEO Abbe Raven, encourages and applauds. “She absolutely lives by the credo that you have to always swing for the fences and take those leaps to have success,” Raven says.

Jane Tranter, who as an executive vp at BBC Worldwide Productions produces Top Gear, was intimidated by that fierceness when the pair first met to discuss the idea of adapting the U.K. series. “She has that big, iconic personality that you need in the noisy, crowded landscape of American TV,” Tranter says. “But at the same time, she’s more than capable of rolling her sleeves up and putting an individual program or production company under a microscope.”

Next, THR can exclusively report that Dubuc is adding How the States Got Their Shape to History’s slate. The docu-series, which features former Daily Show correspondent Brian Unger crisscrossing the country in search of the stories behind the shapes, will join fellow newcomers American Restoration and Mounted in Alaska on History’s spring schedule.

There have been missteps along the way. Among them was a series called Jurassic Fight Club, which Dubuc and her team were convinced would be the next big thing. More recently, there was the heavily scrutinized decision to renege on plans to air conservative producer Joel Surnow’s miniseries The Kennedys, which instead will premiere April 3 on ReelzChannel. Dubuc wouldn’t comment on her parent company’s decision, but she says History will continue its push into scripted, with at least three projects in development.

Purists, too, argue she has steered the channel too far from its roots with unscripted series such as American Pickers and Only in America With Larry the Cable Guy. Dubuc shrugs off the criticism, arguing that she can’t get caught up in the opinions of what are often a passionate few. “The Nielsen numbers are telling us something very different from what the chat board is telling us,” she says. “Last I checked, we weren’t paid on chat board postings.”

It’s a fitting response from a woman frequently described as fearless by colleagues and competitors, a characterization she doesn’t deny. “I like to push; it’s in my DNA,” she acknowledges. “Sometimes it gets me in trouble, sometimes it grows ratings by 100 percent in four years.”

Next, she says, “it will be all about getting the recognition for being one of the big boys. For a while, it was like: ‘Isn’t that cute? History has a hit.’ ‘Oh, they have another hit; isn’t that cute?’ Now, we have the most hits, and it’s not that cute anymore.”           

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