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Nancy Dubuc: Using History as a Guide

John F. Kennedy, speaking of the tide of history, once said, “To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.” If anyone in this business gets that, it's Nancy Dubuc.

In her one year as Executive VP/General Manager of A&E Television Networks' History Channel, Dubuc has catalyzed something of a revolution, green-lighting lively fare that has brought History not only new life and meaning, but also its six most-viewed series and three most-viewed specials ever, not to mention 400% more Web traffic.

Powered by years of experience in both the creative and executive sides of the business, Dubuc recognizes that to accept status quo is to be rendered, well, history.

“You always have to be better than ever at the game, and that's a cultural shift in the industry, not just here,” she says. “We're no longer in an industry where we have several years to do what we have to do. You have to get in there and be aggressive.”

Dubuc's own history began in Yonkers, the first child of parents who had her when they were 19. After two years on the Fordham University campus where her father was a student, she grew up in Bristol, R.I., attending an all-girls school in Providence and cultivating an appreciation for TV shows as diverse as The Three Stooges, Sonny & Cher and Saturday Night Live.

While an advertising major at Boston University, she also rode crew, an experience that forged both her competitive edge and appreciation for teamwork. Dubuc also found time to intern at NBC News in New York and Washington. She parlayed a school-year news desk gig at World Monitor, the Christian Science Monitor's first television venture, into a full-time job that started the day after graduation. Working her way up to line producer in a year, Dubuc learned to find the value of regarding each news day as a fresh start.

When the venture folded 18 months later for internal reasons, Dubuc joined Boston's WGBH as a production coordinator, logging 18-hour days for the notoriously short-staffed “how to” unit, which produced This Old House and other PBS programs. That experience led to a job as series producer for the Discovery Channel's Discover Magazine, a fully commissioned original for which she split time between Boston and New York, coordinating producers, editing pieces and overseeing business over what she calls her five “entrepreneurial years.”

After moving to New York in 1999, she was introduced to her eventual mentor, Abbe Raven, then head of programming at the History Channel. That November, Raven signed Dubuc to be the network's programming supervisor. Together, they made innovative new shows such as the interactive game show History IQ, and won the network's first primetime Emmy nomination for Egypt: Beyond the Pyramids.

When Raven moved up to be general manager of History's big-sister channel A&E, Dubuc rose as well, to the post of VP of development. With no development experience, and taking only six months to get her bearings, Dubuc and her chosen programming director Rob Sharenow unleashed a stream of young-skewing ratings smashes, including Dog the Bounty Hunter, Growing Up Gotti, The First 48 and Intervention. The series remolded the brand from older-skewing and buttoned-up to energized and cutting-edge.

Now CEO of A&E Television Networks (AETN), Raven calls Dubuc “one of the most talented executives working in television,” and attributes her success to the fact that “she has a great appreciation for history. She understands that powerful storytelling and fascinating characters are the heart of great documentary.”

After six months as senior VP of content development for all of the AETN networks, Dubuc paused to have her second child. She returned to AETN in 2007 to lead History and hasn't looked back.

With the help of trusted lieutenants in programming/development chief David McKillop, marketing chief Chris Moseley and ad sales chief Mel Berning, she's focused on “dimensionalizing History”—making the programming more energetic and directed at its 25-54-year-old target viewers—and growing the brand through extensions to encompass all things history, not just linear TV.

“Our goal is to own history everywhere,” she says. “A lot of what we're doing here as a brand is upping our game. It's about being more personal and engaging in the way we execute our shows, being more aggressive and clear in the way we market.”

That focus and desire to innovate has helped her attract the respect of co-workers and new production partners alike. “Nancy has amazing instincts when it comes to developing stories and characters, which has led to breakout hits at both A&E and History Channel,” says Howard Owens, managing director of Reveille, which is producing a new History show on private military operations. “She understands the business as well as anyone I know and is a dynamic leader. ”

Those shows are yielding returns. Dubuc has brought History its six most-viewed series, including Ice Road Truckers and Cities of the Underworld, and its three most-viewed specials, including Lost Book of Nostradamus and this month's Life After People, its most-watched telecast ever, with 5.4 million viewers.

Says History's McKillop, “The simple thing to understand about Nancy is her ability to view ideas and issues with absolute clarity. Add to that a great sense of loyalty to her team, which allows us to do our jobs effectively and fearlessly…that's a competitive advantage.”

As far as thinking about her own path, Dubuc remains solidly in the present, enjoying her job and spending time with her husband and two children, age 4 and 16 months. “People have been asking what I want to do, and I probably should have figured that out,” she says. “But I just love what I do. Until I don't like it, this is what I want to do.”

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