Nancy Dubuc isn’t afraid to stick her neck out. She did, after all, launch unconventional tough-guy series like Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men on History, a network that was once best known for grainy World War II footage and talking-head documentaries. Her rallying cry to her troops has always been clear: Take chances.
But even she wasn’t sure about a new show idea that would eventually become Top Shot. It would be the channel’s first foray into reality competitions, a genre that carries with it considerable baggage for the way it’s often practiced on TV. The shows—think Celebrity Apprentice, Big Brother—can be petty, negative and, well, bitchy. For the heavily male-skewing History, would a series like that take hold?
In the plus column, Top Shot was inspired by two previous specials, Extreme Marksmen and Sharpshooters, both of which drew big audiences interested in seeing expert shootists reproduce the most legendary shots from history and fiction.
“We know our viewers love this subject. But we have no track record with competition shows, and we don’t know if the male audience will connect with it,” says Dubuc, president and general manager of the History networks. “It’s definitely a creative risk, but I think it’s one worth taking.”
Top Shot, which premieres June 6, illustrates not only Dubuc’s propensity to listen to her gut and trust her team but also her gimlet eye on what airs on her network. She went through the series format with a fine-tooth comb, says Craig Piligian, executive producer, whose Pilgrim Films & Television developed the show from a rough idea from the History programming team. (It said: Competition space. Guns.)
“Not many network presidents go beat by beat and look at rough cuts,” Piligian adds. “She’s very hands on, but at the same time, she unleashes us to do our jobs.”
That combination of keen oversight and light touch has served Dubuc well at History. In just three years at the helm, she’s catapulted it into the top 10 among all ad-supported cable networks—it’s now at No. 4—and in the first quarter landed it at No. 7 in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic.
Dubuc has just been named president and general manager of the Lifetime Networks, more than doubling her duties in the A&E Television Networks group. She’ll be taking over a once-dominant brand that still has considerable equity as one of cable’s early leaders, but these days has a fuzzy identity and falling ratings. She will be responsible for strategic planning, programming, consumer marketing, publicity and brand development at the group, which includes the flagship channel and Lifetime Movie Network.
Dubuc’s success at History, where she’s known as a highly competitive, no-nonsense executive with an uncanny ability to zero in on the zeitgeist, made her a logical choice to lead the Lifetime reinvigoration, though the networks couldn’t be temperamentally further apart.
“She’s the total package,” notes Abbe Raven, AETN president and CEO. “She’s very strategic, she’s very good at reaching out to producers and creators, and at the same time, she’s very business- and bottom line-oriented.”
History averaged 1.81 million total viewers in prime time in April and grew its nightly deliveries by 58 percent (over the year-ago period), with the help of original unscripted series Pawn Stars and the first installment of the six-night special America: The Story of Us.
That celebrity-heavy event programming broke History ratings records with 5.7 million total viewers on April 25, the most watched program ever on the channel.
Dubuc says it’s an example of a risky decision on the part of the A&E group to invest in tentpoles at a time when many other networks have retrenched because of the ongoing recession and lousy ad market. “We didn’t cannibalize our programming budget,” she adds. “America is a big topic, so it had to be produced big.”