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H2, History’s Sister Network, Is Doubling Down on New Shows

Having lots of success in counterprogramming

In his midtown office last week at A+E Networks, Paul Cabana managed to sound both completely reasonable and incredibly enthusiastic, as though he were simply describing a happy accident that had led to quarter after quarter of uninterrupted growth at H2, History’s sister network. H2 of late has been on a tear; in Q1 2014, the net improved 11 percent in prime time among adults 25-54, topping the likes of CNN and Hallmark Channel. But it’s no accident.

“Everyone’s moving into scripted … and we’ve had a lot of success in counterprogramming,” said Cabana, svp, head of programming for H2. “Everyone’s moving into scripted, no one’s doing great documentary.”

Among those new shows: Brad Meltzer’s Secret History (hosted by the mystery novelist behind History’s Decoded); an event series titled The Civil War, set to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox; and most promisingly, The Shift, an ancient-history/far-future special about what the planet looked like millions of years ago and how it’ll look millions of years from now.

Cabana said H2’s programming strategy exists partly to protect the History brand, which saw some of its brainier fare “being outpaced by these big rockets” like Vikings, Swamp People and Pawn Stars. The shows weren’t anti-historical, exactly, but the network wanted to have all that ratings cake and eat its educational cake (educake?) too. Hence H2.

“With men 25-54, the audience skew is there but there’s no scale across networks yet—there’s an opportunity to have a hit show within that core science genre,” said Francois Lee, svp, group client director, MediaVest. Few men, he said, watch reality, but once you’ve tapped that well, there are few limits. “You have to find your core, and then you can blow it out.”

Peter Olsen, evp, national ad sales for History, says that despite the ratings growth, “in a given month, less than half of the H2 viewers watch History.” Less duplication means greater reach. That gives him a chance to sell packages across both nets, including what he calls “more to know” spots, which are a cross between a PSA and a custom ad. “Clients only have four or five [deep integrations] they can do in a given year, but we want to give them deeper involvement,” Olsen said. “Frequently they don’t have the bandwidth or the lead time to invest in custom content, and this fits the brand.”

So H2 is looking to lock down a segment of the market that often gets ignored when unscripted content is being programmed. “There are guys out there who are not going to watch a docu-soap,” said Cabana. “And when they’re not watching news or sports, they want to feel like they’re learning something.”

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