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 Gold (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 Heroes, 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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