Programming of the People, for the People

Networks look inward for content to appeal to everyday Americans

The Summer Olympics and the upcoming presidential election
will commandeer American television audiences this summer.
And to keep the trend going, networks are padding viewer
interest with domestic programming (and in one case, an entire network)
that focuses on the average—and sometimes not-so-average—American.

Destination America, the latest iteration out of Discovery Communications,
launched on Memorial Day with a content strategy that focuses
on the “people, places and stories of the United States,” says Marc
Etkind, senior VP of content
strategy for the network.

Destination America has
adopted sister network TLC’s
BBQ Pitmasters and has introduced
new series United States
of Food
, taking viewers on a
tour of the country’s most innovative
and iconic cuisine. In
August, the channel will try its
hand at the popular treasurehunting
genre with Ghost Town
(working title), which explores
abandoned spots from
America’s Wild West.

Travel Channel, in partnership
with the National Parks Foundation, has rolled out Park Secrets,
which guides viewers through the country’s 397 national parks. Travel
also launched Alaska Unleashed to coincide with its “Destination Summer”
campaign. Since all that travel can make you hungry, the network also
offers Bizarre Foods America, which cooks up the food that host Andrew
Zimmern finds on his cross-country culinary adventures.

For adults 25-54 overwhelmed by the negativity surrounding the
presidential election and economy, Sarah Trahern, senior VP and general
manager of Great American Country, says many networks, including
GAC, have presented an alternative, positive aspect of American life. Trahern
says the network “laid the groundwork for this a year ago when we
launched [our] new tagline, ‘Living Country.’”

One of GAC’s newer series, the Trace Adkins-hosed Great American
, visits “everyday Americans who are doing extraordinary things”
and rewards them for their generosity. In September, GAC will premiere
reality show Farm Kings, which follows a family of hardworking
farmers in Pennsylvania. The network gave viewers a sneak peek in
June; Trahern says the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Farm Kings
is reminiscent of the type of programming that History
Channel used to build its recent success. After the introduction of Ice
Road Truckers
in 2007, the network’s content strategy shifted to include
series atypical of its historical documentaries. Since then, History has
seen reality fare such as Swamp People, American Pickers, American Restoration
and Pawn Stars and spinoff Cajun Pawn Stars drive millions of
viewers to the network.

“There is a lot of introspection going on in the country right now,”
says Dirk Hoogstra, senior VP of development and programming at
History. “Generations have passed along…this way of life, and in a way,
watching these contemporary shows is a look at our past.”

History’s scripted drama Hatfields
& McCoys
, which drew
more than 14 million viewers
each night in its three-part airing
in May and earned 16 Emmy
nominations, seemed to reiterate
the audience’s appetite for American
culture and history, whether
scripted or unscripted.

“They can pull programming
from a lot of different content,”
Brad Adgate, Horizon Media
senior VP of research, says of
History’s foray into scripted fare.
“[Being patriotic] is very bankable,
especially with advertisers.”

History’s success has not come without criticism for its lack of
straightforward educational content, but there’s no arguing with the
opportunity created by the shift, says Ed Hersh, senior VP of content
strategy for Military Channel, a Discovery network.

“There is an audience out there that loves history,” Hersh says, “and
that’s our next growth area.”

Military Channel will tap into the presidential election in the fourth
quarter, premiering Commander in Chief, a look at some of the most difficult military decisions of the nation’s past presidents. Also on tap for
Military is The Brokaw Files, featuring interesting stories TV journalist
Tom Brokaw has covered during his career.

Whether a network goes the route of current events, Olympics pride
or the everyday American, patriotic programming has no downside,
says Adgate.

“People generally take a lot of pride in their country and like to see
the diversity of it,” Adgate says. And with shows like BBQ Pitmasters,
Farm Kings and Hatfields & McCoys, networks are making their programming
just as diverse as America.

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