A Work of Non-Fiction: Dubuc Makes History Her Way

Nancy Dubuc was doubly blessed as 2006 ended.

The senior vice president of non-fiction and alternative programming for A&E Networks was notified she’d been promoted to executive vice president and general manager of The History Channel while she was off work — well, off cable-related work. She was on maternity leave, toiling over her newborn daughter, Alice, born the end of September. She and her husband, Michael, also tend to their three-year-old son, Jackson.

This was her second promotion in a year. She was named to the senior vice president post just last June. As History GM, she replaces Dan Davids, who left the network Dec. 31 after 22 years at A&E Television Network.

As an A&E executive, she was in charge of all program development for History, as well as AETN’s multiplatform initiatives. In her new job, Dubuc will be responsible for History’s strategic planning, programming, consumer marketing and brand development.

The 38-year-old transitioned back to the executive suite Jan. 2 for a “new beginning, new job, new challenges,” she said.

This was not the trajectory she anticipated when she was a girl. She was always passionate about media and was the editor of her high school yearbook and on the staff of the newspaper at Boston College. At the latter she discovered her passion for journalism and a zest for the energy of a newsroom. She interned at NBC News and worked for a division of the Christian Science Monitor.

But that zeal was dimmed after a few Christmases. As an employee with the least seniority, she got stuck with the holiday shifts, away from hearth and family. She got a job at Boston PBS affiliate WGBH, where she discovered she could still work in TV and have a personal life.

“That began my path into documentary and non-fiction programming. Did I think that I would ever be heading a network? No,” she said flatly.

Her link to cable came when she moved to Big Rock Productions, which created a magazine show for the Discovery Channel. She worked on that series for 5 years and was familiar with the demands and challenges of cable TV when AETN CEO Abbe Raven came calling.

Early in her career, Dubuc was given advice she lives by: “Pick your boss, not your job.” Raven fit that philosophy, Dubuc said.

“I came to A&E to work for her. I really wanted to work for a woman,” Dubuc said. Raven “is such a well-respected figure in our industry,” she said, adding that Raven has been the conduit through which Dubuc has met, and learned from, top marketers and programmers. It’s been a good match, for Raven had done more for Dubuc’s career than anyone, Dubuc said.

The praise is mutual. In Dubuc, Raven recognized a “laser focus on programming.”

“She could look at and articulate what an audience would respond to,” Raven said. “I saw in Nancy a strong leader, well respected, with great creative instincts. I get excited when I think about what’s coming next for us.”

Raven called Dubuc the key architect in the ratings turn-around at A&E. Dubuc helped introduce reality-based series such as Dog the Bounty Hunter,Intervention, Criss Angel: Mindfreak and Inked, and acquisitions such as CSI Miami to the network. Programming changes made during the past 3 years have helped lower the median age of A&E’s core audience by 12 years. The network has seen double-digit growth during the last 3 years in the 18- to 49-year-old demo and among adults 25- to 54-years-old.

Under Dubuc’s direction, the network also launched A&E IndieFilms. That division co-produced Murderball, a winner on the film festival circuit and an Academy Award nominee for best documentary.

“She lives by ’Lets get it done and on the air.’ She pushes through obstacles and has executed time and again where others would have just walked away,” Raven said.

Dubuc also takes life cues from an old friend: Jamie Gangel, a 16-year veteran of NBC News, now a correspondent for the Today show, whom Dubuc met when she was an NBC intern.

“She gives me advice from when to make a move to when to have a baby,” Dubuc said. “She was the first one in my career to tell me I could be a star. I still can’t believe that, I don’t believe my own press, but she urged me to think big.”

Dubuc said her biggest challenge every day is making sure the various departments reporting to her keep moving. That, and learning to trust herself.

“In this marketplace, the industry is moving faster than ever. You have to take risks that are smart in order to grow networks at an impressive rate. That’s a tall order,” Dubuc said.

The History executive said she didn’t have any succinct advice for other women striving to make it to the executive suite and maintain work-life balance. Even though she works in media, she criticizes her own industry for preaching to women in the workplace that there is some uniform solution to having a good home and work life.

“There’s no easy answer to life-work balance. Women are under a lot of pressure to have an answer. We’ve got to stop listening to the media and find a different make-up for our own family. It’s a private decision,” she said. “My mother and my grandmother both worked, and no one raised an eyebrow.”

The executive advised others aspiring to become Wonder Women to find a job they love.

“You have to love what you do. If you don’t, none of it’s going to work. Every day, I ask myself, 'Do I love this?’ Passion helps everything else fall into place,” she said.

She also notes she ignored comments early in her career that it would be too hard to find a job in cable. That was the worst advice she ever heard, hands down, Dubuc said.

“You can’t listen to the discouraging words. Whatever the field, keep at it,” she said. No one likes looking for a new job, it can be very discouraging.

“I’ve been very fortunate to find people along the way” willing to help her advance her career, Dubuc said. In this industry, it’s important to build alliances.

If she has any regret, it is that she didn’t pick a West Coast college. Though she’s proud of her alma mater and her education there, she’s been an East Coast girl her whole life. She chose to stay near her family rather than attend a university in Los Angeles. She wishes she’d expanded her experience by spending her collegiate years farther away from the nest, she said.

There’s a lesson she wishes she’d learned earlier in her career, too.

“Speaking softly gets you farther. I wished I’d learned that younger,” she said.