Dan Davids could have been speaking figuratively when he said, “The History Channel is on fire.” At the moment, though, he was being quite literal.
The History Channel was on fire. Smoke was billowing into its offices, forcing Davids, the network’s general manager, and everyone else in the building to spill out onto East 45th Street.
The New York City Fire Department quickly showed up and ended the scare. Davids, assured that the History Channel was not yet history, could now continue on to lunch to discuss why his fledgling network is arguably the cable industry’s hottest property.
Since its launch in January 1995, the History Channel has been both marvel and vindication, especially for any history teacher who has ever witnessed a student’s eyes glaze over. The network devotes 24 hours of programming a day to the presentation of historical subjects and figures. If that sounds like a sure way to bring a quick end to the Age of Television, nothing could be farther from the truth.
In a mere 18 months, the History Channel has built an audience of more than 20 million subscribers, easily making it one of the fastest-growing cable networks in the last 10 years.
That’s the History Channel’s history. Its future looks rosier still. In Myers Reports’ annual survey of the cable industry this year, cable operators said they were more likely to add the History Channel than any other service, including the Sci-Fi Channel, Turner Classic Movies, ESPN2 and scores of other networks available at any given moment.
Clearly, history sells on television, a notion that Davids and other executives with the Arts & Entertainment Networks suspected might be true in the summer of 1992 when they first considered beginning a new channel. The company’s existing network, A&E;, with its combination of documentaries and sophisticated dramas, was already a cable success, reaching 65 million American households and hauling in numerous cable industry awards. Now, the company--jointly owned by the Walt Disney Co.'s ABC unit, General Electric Co.'s NBC, and the Hearst Co.--was ready to try to duplicate its success with a second network. But what would the theme be?
“We looked at a host of different concepts,” said Davids, an executive with A&E; since its beginnings in 1984. “Not to bore you, but they ranged from everything from the Mystery Channel to a golf and tennis channel to a nautical channel.”
In the end, though, Davids and his colleagues opted to stick with what they knew best. The A&E; network had run a number of documentaries that had attracted wide audiences, including “Civil War Journal,” “Real West” and “Dinosaur.”
Why not create a whole network with 24 hours of historical documentaries, biographies of historical figures and movies with historical content?
Surveys commissioned by A&E; supported the hunch. Half of those polled said they were more interested in history than they had been five years earlier. Two-thirds complained that television was doing too little to promote history, which had not always been the case.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the networks often devoted shows to historical events. But in the frenetic ‘80s and ‘90s, the mania for only the newest and latest information squeezed out the networks’ willingness to look backward.
A&E; executives were convinced the networks were missing an opportunity. The phenomenal popularity of Ken Burns’ Civil War series in 1990 gave them even more confidence.
“It said to us as programmers that you can examine any topic in history in a creative way and make it exciting and dramatic,” said Abbe Raven, senior vice president of programming for the History Channel. “It fostered our belief that we could tackle any subject, even if there aren’t moving pictures. It means that the topics we can cover are endless.”
Liftoff for the new network was at 7 p.m. Jan. 1, 1995, with the first showing from the original series “Automobiles,” narrated by Edward Herrmann. (The first program: “The Corvette.”)
Today, Raven says, original productions make up 40% of the programming. The rest are existing documentaries, movies and mini-series (including, recently, a presentation of the original “Roots”).
World War II has been featured so much that at times the History Channel seemed in danger of becoming the “all Hitler, all the time” network. But the channel takes pains to span time, with shows on the ancient Egyptians to the Crusades through the Civil War, two world wars and Vietnam. Viewers tend to like conflict in every epoch, Raven says.
While moving pictures do not exist from older periods, the History Channel has shown viewers plenty of archival footage from this century that contemporary viewers have probably never seen before, including scenes of the Romanov family before their overthrow and tank battles during World War I.
The documentaries tend to be informative and balanced if not necessarily provocative. That doesn’t mean that the network hasn’t been inventive. It recently showed a documentary in which the children of Holocaust survivors were brought together with the children of SS troops. It also showed a documentary on Canadian airmen who had escaped from the Buchenwald death camp but were unable to get anyone to listen to what they had witnessed there.
“What we hope to do is tell dramatic stories with a new slant of some kind,” Raven said.
Although the network focuses on the past, it also tries to be topical. This summer, it will do shows on the history of the Olympics. Next fall, in “November Warriors,” it will inaugurate a series on American presidential campaigns, starting with George Washington’s.
The History Channel is planning an ambitious fall season that will include “The Great Ships,” a series that each week will examine a different sea vessel, from the dreadnoughts to the PT boats; “History Undercover,” a series on espionage operations; and “True Action Adventures.”
With the channel adding about a million new subscribers every month, Davids sees no reason to look back.