Chef Anthony Bourdain was sorry to see Paul Cabana go. Long before becoming senior VP and head of programming for H2, History channel’s smaller sibling, Cabana was an Emmy-nominated producer, director and cameraman on Bourdain’s Travel Channel show, No Reservations.
“Loved working with him—everybody on the crew loved working with him,” Bourdain says. “We were all shocked and bummed when he left us. Why would anyone choose to leave our rollicking road crew lifestyle of street food, drinking home-brewed Laotian rice whiskey, smoking opium and discovering the world’s infinite variety of toilets to head up a network? What kind of freak would do that?”
Cabana grew up in the Chicago suburbs, the youngest son of a doctor whose three other sons all became doctors. “There’s such a linear track in that field, and I think my career in television has kind of zigzagged, and I definitely prefer that,” Cabana says, adding that his brothers still remind his parents that it’s not too late for him to come back to the family profession and save lives.
After graduating from Harvard, Cabana went into advertising, but he soon wanted to work on more stimulating content. The Internet was the place to be, and he became a new media producer for The Atlantic and Fast Company. “I tried to do everything I could to do video projects, and at a certain point I realized I should probably be in television,” he says.
Cabana freelanced on series for Discovery, TLC, PBS and with Bourdain, where his adventures included eating goat intestines in Greece. Then he got a meeting with top programming execs at A+E Networks, including Nancy Dubuc, now CEO of A+E but then in charge at History. Cabana was recommended to them by his Harvard roommate, Sean Cohan, now executive VP, A+E Networks International.
“As long as I’ve known him, he’s had a unique and eccentrically creative streak to him,” says Cohan. Both were economics majors, but Cabana spent time walking around campus with a video camera and putting on shows.
Cohan told other A+E execs about Cabana. “‘There’s this guy I want you to meet. He’s just a real smart guy. I think you’re going to like him,’” Cohan says.
Cabana didn’t have corporate clothing, so he went out and bought some. He gaffer-taped the price tag on his new overcoat, thinking that if things didn’t work out, he could return it.
When the idea of a job at A+E came up, Cabana’s gut reaction was that he was neither interested nor qualified— at least at first. “I knew that Nancy Dubuc had some really ambitious plans at History at that time. You could tell that things were really going to start changing, and I couldn’t miss an opportunity to be part of that,” he says, explaining what changed his mind.
While History flourished with shows such as Pawn Stars and Swamp People, Cabana, a history geek, was drawn to core history projects such as How the States Got Their Shapes and The Men Who Built America.
When the company turned History International into H2, a network focusing on those types of shows, Dirk Hoogstra, executive VP and GM of History and H2, tapped Cabana to run it.
“I needed someone in there who was a leader, who could manage the business, who could grow the creative, fill the development pipeline and deal with ad sales,” says Hoogstra. “Once I got Paul in there, I could really step back and feel confident that H2 was going to do well as a network and a business.”
“At first, I don’t think many people wanted that job. It was seen as a lesser sibling. For me, it seemed like this huge entrepreneurial adventure,” Cabana says. And one H2 project, The World Wars, turned out so well, it aired on History instead. “That’s what I love about working here,” Cabana adds. “I can do these projects in the corner and find opportunities for them.”
H2 has done well also, grabbing record ratings. “The revenue has just skyrocketed,” Cabana says. “It’s fun to build a solid business.”