David McKillop, the senior VP of development and programming at History Channel, is the quiet executive. He has been instrumental in some of the biggest hits at Discovery (Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs) and History (Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars), so one might expect McKillop’s name to be more often rendered in boldface. But it is a testament to his collaborative style that he has stayed in the shadows.
“Good management often doesn’t get the credit for success. A show does or the talent does,” says Nancy Dubuc, president and general manager of History, who brought McKillop to the network from Discovery. “One of the unspoken successes of the brand, and one that isn’t trumpeted enough, is David’s masterful building of the team and the way we all work together to challenge ourselves.”
McKillop was right alongside Deadliest Catch creator Thom Beers when Discovery was developing the series about the perils of crab fishing in the Bering Sea. “It was one of those crazy endeavors,” recalls Jane Root, former president of Discovery Networks. “The two of them were in Alaska just figuring it out.”
“I think given the career he has, he undoubtedly could be a lot better known outside the networks he’s worked for,” she adds. “It’s not that he’s self-effacing, he’s just quietly confident.”
In a few years, History has gone from a stolid channel populated by war documentaries to a character-based juggernaut that boasts some of the most widely watched programs on cable. Pawn Stars, which is averaging 5 million viewers this season, is the No. 1 series on ad-supported cable in the 25-54 demographic. The premiere in April of the network’s six-part special America: The Story of Us, produced by Root’s Nutopia, drew nearly 6 million viewers and now stands as the most-watched series in the network’s history. Last week, History rolled out its first competition series, Top Shot. And the network is in production on its first scripted project, a miniseries about the Kennedy family from 24 creator Joel Surnow.
“There is nothing tougher than re-inventing a brand, and they’ve really done a remarkable job. And David’s a huge part of that,” says former broadcast executive Lloyd Braun. His production company, BermanBraun, has multiple shows in development at History, with the upcoming Decoded set to bow this fall.
McKillop’s talent for team leadership isn’t surprising given his background. His late father was a diplomat in the Foreign Service, and David was the youngest boy in a family of five siblings.
McKillop’s family lived in Tunisia and Brussels until David was 6, and then moved to Washington, D.C. “My first memory of America was coming into New York harbor on the USS America and my father getting us all up to go on deck to look at the Statue of Liberty,” he says.
McKillop studied human ecology and history at Connecticut College. After graduation, he worked in the physics department at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where he helped design an exhibit on atomic clocks. That led to an opportunity to work with Martin Carr, who was producing Smithsonian World for WETA. (It was narrated by thenunknown author David McCullough.)
He has worked in production and development ever since. He spent nearly a decade at National Geographic, where he helped launch the Explorer series. He left Nat Geo to start his own company, producing a science magazine for Discovery, which led to a staff job in Discovery’s programming and development group.
“David is really a producer’s producer,” Dubuc says. “He truly understands how complicated it is to get these shows done. He also has amazing editorial instincts.”
A voracious reader, McKillop has a knack for keeping his finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist. “I’m naturally curious, and I think that’s key to being a programmer,” he says. “I love information. I love science. History is my real passion.”
But, as usual, McKillop is quick to deflect the credit. “I think our secret weapon is our corporate culture,” he points out. “What I’ve learned is that if you give people the space to make their own decisions, to feel safe to take risks, and if you’re transparent in all of your dealings with them, you’ll get the performance we’re getting from the History programming team. I guess I’m part diplomat, part cheerleader and part father.”
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