A+E's Nancy Dubuc on 'Liz & Dick': I'd Do It Again
This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's Nov. 29, four days after the debut of Lifetime's Liz & Dick, the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton telepic starring Lindsay Lohan, whose less-than-stellar reviews set off a media frenzy. The two-hour epic was deemed a "wildly graceless biopic" by the Los Angeles Times, "an imbalanced mess" by Hitfix and "an instant classic of unintentional hilarity" by THR's Tim Goodman. But the promise of a camp experience, coupled with the first opportunity to see Lohan in a significant role in five years, seemed to tee it up to soar spectacularly -- or, conversely, bomb big. Instead, it landed squarely, and respectably, in the middle, delivering solid numbers that made it the fourth-highest-rated TV movie of 2012.
Of the reviews, Nancy Dubuc, who oversees Lifetime as president of entertainment and media at A+E Networks, says, "You can't take a risk like that and not draw criticism, and we knew that going in." And if she had it to do all over again? Absolutely, she says, without a second's hesitation. After all, for days leading up to the movie's Thanksgiving weekend premiere, scores of people were discussing and, in many cases, Googling what channel Lifetime was on their cable system who never had before. Suddenly, a network that long ago waned in relevance was the topic du jour on talk shows, tabloids and countless Twitter feeds. "We couldn't have bought the buzz that we got," she explains. "The idea that all of these people were talking about Lifetime? I'll take that."
For Dubuc, 43, who has made a career of getting people to pay attention, Liz & Dick was the latest in a year defined by big swings. With a focused, no-nonsense air about her, the married mother of two continues to shatter her own records -- History's first scripted foray, Hatfields & McCoys, delivered the biggest viewership in cable entertainment history -- and shoot up the corporate ladder. Dubuc's biggest vote of confidence came in September, when A&E and Bio, as well as oversight of A+E Networks' international and digital divisions, were added to her purview. The promotion, which puts Dubuc in charge of about 500 employees and about $3.5 billion in annual revenue, came just months after AETN was valued at about $20 billion.
"Nancy is fearless -- that's the key to her success," says Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney, who co-chairs the A+E Networks board (AETN is jointly owned by Disney and Hearst) and has watched as Dubuc has backed one bold move after the next, beginning years earlier with her decision to redefine History's offerings. In the half-decade or so since, Dubuc has remained in the big-bet business, pushing aggressively for rebrands (new additions A&E and Bio are possibilities), new genres (scripted for History, unscripted for Lifetime) and attention-grabbing, if controversial, talent (Lohan, Bristol Palin).
She knows precisely what she wants -- and goes after it -- a quality that was on display as she sifted through a series of potential Liz & Dick billboard images in her sprawling Century City office in late September, two months before the movie would debut. Surrounded by many of her Lifetime lieutenants, she tossed a few into the discard pile with the certainty that has come to define her: "No." "Definitely not." "People won't recognize that it's Lindsay here." She then zeroed in on a provocative shot of Lohan lying down in a curve-hugging black dress. "That's the one," she said, definitively, before moving on to Lohan's publicity plans.
That Dubuc still is weighing in on such things as promo shots and PR strategy even in her new role is perhaps remarkable, but she knows no other way. And given her track record -- she took History from No. 11 to No. 4 in six years -- her staff would be foolish not to listen. And so, on this day, as the team around her scribbled down everything she said, Dubuc continued firing off opinions on such things as taglines for The Client List ("I like, 'A different kind of touching drama' "), music for The June Carter Cash Story ("Every promo should have 'Ring of Fire' in it") and ads for The Houstons: On Our Own ("Try like hell to get [Whitney's] music. How can you not?").
"I'm not a very patient person," she explains weeks later, acknowledging a reputation for being particularly decisive and often outspoken over tea at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills. "I'll take those quick risks to see if it's going to work versus taking the long and tortuous road of trying to guarantee myself that something will work. That's like self-mutilation to me. Either it will or it won't, and I'm not afraid to say I made the wrong call."
Dubuc still is wrapping her head around the opportunities the new position will offer when she sits down for a marketing meeting at AETN's Midtown Manhattan office in mid-October. Of interest on this day is A&E breakout hit Duck Dynasty, which now is regularly beating its broadcast competition. "How long are you going to keep the show up online for free?" the bicoastal exec begins grilling A&E's executive vp marketing Guy Slattery. "What are people saying about the show on Twitter?" "How are you tracking the chatter?" "Have you thought about actually calling it a comedy?"
As the line of questioning intensifies, it's readily apparent that Dubuc -- a strikingly confident 5-foot-11 and often in heels -- is energized by the possibilities. It's among the reasons she has stayed put at the company despite being courted for other gigs as her star has risen in recent years. (Among them: a top role at OWN, a cable net owned by rival Discovery.) Another is loyalty, particularly to A+E Networks CEO Abbe Raven, who identified leadership potential in Dubuc as a young executive and has continued to promote her. "Nancy is great at building brands and understanding who the audience is and how we get to them in new and innovative ways, which is an incredible skill," says Raven. There long has been speculation that Dubuc will inherit the role of chief when Raven is ready to retire.
"I remember we went to lunch at this little bistro on 2nd Avenue, and Abbe said to me, 'You could be a GM one day,' " recalls Dubuc of a conversation early in her tenure at AETN. "Then she had to say to me, 'Not today, Nancy, but one day.' I guess my ambition had been smaller than hers was for me. But once it was tapped, my ambition was a pain in the ass." (Raven remembers that meal just as clearly: "Nancy's eyes got wider, and she sat a little taller, and she was like, 'Really?' And then there was this unspoken, 'How do I do that?' ")
The two have remained extraordinarily close, so much so that when Dubuc was in labor with her first child and her husband was stuck in traffic, it was Raven who took her to the hospital and remained with her in the delivery room. Although the women are vastly different in style and approach -- Raven is the more reserved, conservative counterpart to Dubuc's big, often risk-seeking personality -- there is a deep-rooted respect and a sense of support that can be hard to find among high-powered women in the industry.
Those who work with, for or around Dubuc similarly are drawn to her, often commenting not only on her instincts but also on her ability to make the job fun. There's no better example of the latter than her now-annual trip to Miami, a first-of-its-kind, AETN-funded retreat for reality TV's top producers, which she co-hosts with Raven and A&E president Bob DeBitetto. In addition to beach activities and lavish dinners, the trio offers a peek behind the curtain at how the channels make decisions on programming, timing, marketing and cancellations as part of an informative half-day session.
"When Lloyd [Braun] and I got the invitation the first year, we thought it was a fantastic idea that was forward-thinking and smart. It's the kind of idea that networks should be doing," says network chief-turned-producer Gail Berman, who notes that she hasn't met too many people as "focused," "appropriately ambitious" and "really excellent in her approach" as Dubuc.
Adds Pawn Stars executive producer Brent Montgomery: "The trip has been a game-changer for us producers. We were so used to just begging for work and begging to be treated like partners, and she came up with this idea to fly us down there and treat us like friends. It goes a long way."
Dubuc didn't need to look far for a role model. While in her teens, Dubuc saw her mother, who had had her while still a teenager in nursing school, step away from a career in medicine to launch what grew to be one of the most successful catering businesses in Rhode Island. "She's a hard-driving, entrepreneurial woman, and you can see the seeds of that in me," says Dubuc. Her early lessons in discipline and drive continued during her time at Boston University, where she rowed on the school's Division I crew team. "It's an interesting sport in that you probably have to have more precision and collaboration to compete as a team than you do in any other sport; but then as soon as that race is over, you're competing with those other members of your team for a seat," she adds over lunch at Manhattan's Pampano in October, noting that that "teamwork, compete, teamwork, compete, yin and yang" helped shape her.
After graduating in 1991, Dubuc did a brief stint in NBC's publicity department, where she acknowledges she was a poor fit. "It wasn't for me because I couldn't keep my mouth shut," she confesses. Dubuc quickly moved into more of a hands-on producer role, first at The Christian Science Monitor and then at Boston's WGBH (where fellow cable heavyweight Bonnie Hammer had gotten her start years earlier). By 1999, she had joined the History Channel as director of historical programming before shifting her focus to A&E. She took on a series of higher-level programming gigs at the latter, putting on such envelope-pushing series as Growing Up Gotti and Dog the Bounty Hunter. "We were an entertainment brand, and if we were going to compete in an era of incredible growth in the cable industry, I felt we actually needed to be entertaining," recalls Dubuc of a message she drilled into her team.
Dubuc was granted control of History in 2007 and famously called producer Thom Beers to persuade him to turn a high-rated ice-road truckers-themed episode of wonky tech series Modern Marvels into a stand-alone series. Six months later, Ice Road Truckers was on the air, regularly garnering 3.2 million viewers in its first season on History. Other bold efforts, including Ax Men, Pawn Stars and Swamp People, followed suit as she redefined the History brand -- once a musty channel best known for historical docs -- as a broad-appeal reality powerhouse. Advertisers took notice: In her tenure, the network's net ad revenue has grown 68 percent to $492 million, according to SNL Kagan.
"She has a producer mentality and knows how to say, 'These are the guys who pitched it to us, these are the guys who are passionate about it, let them do the show,' " says Top Shot executive producer Craig Piligian. "She's not a nervous executive, which has served her well."
More recently, in Dubuc's push for cachet and greater ad dollars, she has ushered History into scripted content. After a high-profile mishap with The Kennedys, a controversial 2011 mini that ultimately moved to ReelzChannel after History dumped it amid political pressure, Dubuc's team rolled out Hatfields & McCoys. Despite only lukewarm reviews, the Kevin Costner-Bill Paxton miniseries about the famed family feud averaged nearly 14 million viewers for three consecutive nights in late May, becoming the three most-watched entertainment telecasts in ad-supported cable history. Months later, 16 Emmy nominations -- and five wins -- followed, ultimately changing the industry's perception of what the network was capable of.
Now, as her team explores follow-ups, Dubuc is committed to sticking to well-known stories. "Sometimes people get fairly obscure just for the creative license of it, and that can backfire," she explains. "Iconic stories are iconic for a reason, and there are so many incredible, iconic history stories that have not been told that we don't need to go too deep in the well yet."
In the spring, Dubuc's network will launch its first scripted series, Vikings, a period drama starring Gabriel Byrne. In a meeting with History's top executives to discuss marketing materials for the effort, Dubuc noted, "If you don't get 7 million people to show up, you're dead in the water." Pressed about the lofty goal later in the day, she acknowledges it's ambitious but not impossible. "It doesn't make any sense for us to do a scripted series if it's not going to be big, so we have to be really disciplined about them," she says of programming that can cost four to five times more than unscripted fare.
Lifting ratings and relevance similarly also has been key to her strategy at Lifetime, a formerly top-rated women's network that was added to Dubuc's portfolio in spring 2010. She quickly began bulking up on potential scripted series to fill a cupboard that had been left relatively bare and pushing the women-in-peril brand into the louder and cheaper unscripted arena with such series as Dance Moms (a hit) and Bristol Palin: Life's a Tripp (a miss). In her bid to freshen a somewhat stale image and appeal to a younger, broader, multitasking female, Dubuc unveiled a top-to-bottom rebrand with a new logo and "Your life. Your time." tagline in May.
Today, the network ranks No. 5 among women in the key demo, ahead of Bravo and TLC, with a median age down to 48, its youngest in 16 years. (No. 1 is the more broadly focused USA.) And for the first time in Dubuc's career, she is a part of the demo she is courting. She is that hard-to-reach female who freely admits she "doesn't particularly like to unwind," though when she does, it usually occurs in front of the TV watching Game of Thrones, The Good Wife or Grey's Anatomy or in a movie theater by herself ("My idea of heaven," she says of the rare treat). More often, the time she isn't at work is spent running around with her creative director husband and children, ages 6 and 9, from one Manhattan sports field to the next.
Lifetime's new look followed a yearlong roadshow where Dubuc sat down with agents, producers and talent to sell them on the opportunity her network could offer. "I'd do my 'Please come work here' speech. We're creative-friendly, we have the budget to make things happen and there's not a cumbersome infrastructure in decision-making," she says. Although there still is convincing to be done in Hollywood and beyond, Dubuc has managed to lure such household names as Queen Latifah (star of the Steel Magnolias remake), Jennifer Aniston (an executive producer on the short-film anthology Five) and Jennifer Love Hewitt (star of series The Client List) and the attention that comes with them.
None more so than Lohan, though, whose Liz & Dick was a milestone for Lifetime in Dubuc's eyes -- not so much for the 3.5 million viewers it delivered but rather for what it represented for her network. "What I'm most proud of is that I don't think it's a movie that Lifetime would have done two years ago. It would have felt too disconnected, too provocative and too risky," she says of an internal mind-set that she is changing, one network at a time. "And what I love about my team today is that they don't feel like it was risky at all."