Industry watchers may have been surprised by History’s recent move into scripted programming, but if they know Dirk Hoogstra, executive VP and general manager of History and H2, they shouldn’t have been.
“Scripted was something my whole life I wanted to do and arrived here talking about it,” says Hoogstra, 41, who joined History in 2007 as VP of development and programming. He had previously spent eight years developing The Kennedys miniseries at Discovery and TLC and brought the project with him, only to see it end up at ReelzChannel after History dropped the series.
Although he says watching his passion project go to another net was “pretty brutal,” he credits A+E’s culture of risk-taking for allowing him to follow up with Hatfields & McCoys just a year later. The miniseries averaged 13.8 million viewers, earned five Emmys and is credited with helping revive the stalled genre.
While Hoogstra, who became GM at History in June, says scripted fare is more in line with his personal tastes (he’s an avid watcher of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad), he recognizes reality franchises like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars are the core of the net’s business and will continue to be, with three or four scripted projects a year.
“As there’s some money leaving broadcast, those are considered premium dollars. And for lots of reasons, they feel like those dollars shouldn’t be in reality shows,” he says. “For us, these are like buckets to catch some of that money. Because we’ve had a great history of success with Hatfields and [other scripted hits] The Bible and Vikings, we can ask for really premium [ad rates] on these.”
Colleagues describe Hoogstra as someone who sticks with an idea when he’s passionate about it, which is how he pushed Vikings from a project he read about in a trade magazine to a scripted series even when it was seen as risky.
“The strategy here was, let’s stick to the miniseries and movies, that’s where we can be successful. It’s a more palatable risk for us to take, one where we’ve already seen success,” says Nancy Dubuc, CEO of A+E Networks. “[Hoogstra] didn’t come in with three more miniseries. He came in and said, ‘I think we should do a series and this is what it is—Vikings.’ That’s a pretty big swing with not a lot of track record or experience in that area.”
Hoogstra has been interested in scripted shows since he was growing up in Rockville, Md., and wanted a career as a musician or making movies. He did the band thing for about six years after college, touring up and down the East Coast playing electric bass. But it was a psychology course in animal behavior during his senior year at the University of Maryland that got him interested in working at Discovery Communications, where he started as a temp and worked his way up the production ranks.
“He was young, but he was my right-hand guy. I ran every single thing by him,” says Sean Gallagher, who hired Hoogstra at Discovery and is now co-owner and executive producer at Half Yard Productions. “If I told him I was going to do something, greenlight a show, if he didn’t agree with me, he told me. I don’t think you see that much anymore. Dirk always had the balls to tell me I was wrong.”
Hoogstra spends his free time training in Cross Fit with his wife; the two attended high school together and reconnected while working at Discovery. Among his goals as head of History are to create a scripted series one day, and to keep the network—among the top five in cable—a contender for a long time.
“One of the ways we’ll do that is by bringing in high-quality scripted and a volume of reality hits,” he says. “Over time, what those scripted things will do is alter the perception of our brand in a positive way.”
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