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History in the Making

Network Exec’s Series Put New Appeal in the Past

By David Kohn

Dirk Hoogstra

Ten years ago the History Channel was known mostly for low-budget World War II documentaries. Cut to 2014, and the network’s profile might now be described as a more historically minded HBO. Dirk Hoogstra ’94 has had a lot to do with that.

As executive vice president and general manager of History, as it’s now known, Hoogstra has helped drive the network’s transformation into one of the new breed of cable channels offering long-form dramatic series starring top-level talent.

“It’s a really fun time to be in the business,” he says. “What we’re doing, and what other people are doing, it’s the quality of a feature film, but you can do eight to 10 hours of it.”

Hoogstra was executive producer of 2012’s Emmy-winning “Hatfields and McCoys,” starring Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton and a bevy of young, hot actors and actresses. The finale’s 14.3 million viewers broke cable records. He championed the highly rated series “Vikings,” which debuted last year with Gabriel Byrne, Alexander Ludwig (“The Hunger Games”) and a bevy of other young, hot actors and actresses. He also played a key role in the decision to remake the famed slavery miniseries “Roots,” which is now in development.

Since he was 11, he’d envisioned a career in entertainment, either in movies or music. While at Maryland majoring in psychology, he began playing bass in a rap-metal group called Sampson. After graduation, it recorded two albums and performed regularly at clubs from Buffalo to Norfolk, but Hoogstra burned out. “It just got to be too hard,” he says. “Drive with the band to a gig, drive back all night, and then go to work the next day without any sleep. I couldn’t keep it up.”

So he quit, and focused on his job in production at the Discovery Channel in Silver Spring. Seven years ago, he moved to History, based in Manhattan. He began in reality TV and oversaw several successful shows including “American Pickers,” which follows a pair of intrepid antique finders, and “Mountain Men,” about tough guys who live in the wilderness. In 2010, he became a vice president, and last year was promoted to his current job.

Because historical scripted series attract different advertisers than reality shows, Hoogstra says, the network sought to capitalize on a new revenue stream. Plus, he loves stories. Hoogstra, who lives north of New York with his wife and two young children, says, “For years, I was trying to start doing scripted dramas. I’d always wanted to do that.”

There is no precise formula for picking a show, he says: “It’s mostly gut and experience. I always look for a story with good characters, a story that covers new territory.” What appealed to him about “Hatfields and McCoys,” for instance, was both its universality and its subtlety.

“It’s a story about the desire for revenge, this deep-rooted feeling that we’ve all felt,” he says. “And the show doesn’t have good guys and bad guys. It’s very complex.”

In September, the network aired a four-hour miniseries about Harry Houdini, starring Academy Award winner Adrien Brody. In the pipeline are a World War II tale about a maverick army officer, a Revolutionary War drama called “Sons of Liberty” and “Roots.”

History PosterHe remembers watching the original “Roots” and is eager to begin work on the new version. With modern technology and production values, he thinks the remake can be even better. “It’s such a cultural touchstone,” he says. “And as great as the first one was, I think we can do something special, bring it up to date for a new generation. It’s a huge opportunity.”

As Netflix, YouTube and other Web outlets change how and what kinds of programs Americans watch, Hoogstra is confident that viewers will benefit from vastly improved quality. Networks have to respect viewers’ expectations. “It’s very competitive now,” he says. “The best shows will be the ones that win.”

 

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