Television: Today, the past is all the rage on cable's fast-growing History Channel, where the future also looks splendid.


July 01, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Dan Davids could have been speaking figuratively when he said one day last week, "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 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.

TCI, which serves Baltimore, expects that it will be offering the History Channel to an additional 2 million subscribers nationally by the end of the summer.

"Of all the new channels that are coming, the History Channel was the most requested to be added to the Comcast system and we were happy to add it," said Mitchell Schmale, a spokesman for the Comcast systems in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, all of which now carry the History Channel.

Clearly, history sells on television, a notion that Davids and other executives with the Arts and 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 Fifties and Sixties, the networks often devoted shows to historical events. But in the frenetic Eighties and Nineties, 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.")

Spanning time

Today, Raven says, original productions make up 40 percent of the programming. The rest are existing documentaries, movies and mini-series (including, recently, a presentation of the original "Roots").

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.