Who says you can't change the course of history? A cable network just did. The History Channel, once slammed for its sleepy approach, even panned as the "Hitler Channel," is boasting explosive ratings growth. Big specials and new series with younger appeal have upped its popularity quotient.
History's prime time audience grew 37% in the second quarter, averaging 1.21 million viewers. That's more than History's older sibling channel A&E, which attracted 1.05 million viewers. (History Channel was launched in 1995, in part, to work A&E's extensive library.)
One driver of the big second-quarter ratings was replays of HBO epic miniseries Band of Brothers, whose numbers more than doubled History's average. The series' first episode grabbed 4.6 million viewers, a record for the channel. Even without Band of Brothers, History has been on a roll. In the first quarter, its audience grew 25%.
"They're delivering," says Starcom Media Entertainment Associate Director Kathryn Thomas. "History just needed to broaden a little to capture more viewers, but without forgetting its core." Indeed, Kagan Research estimates its revenues at $145 million in 2003.
Clever marketing helps, too. Well-placed ads—full-page ads in The New York Times, on-air spots, billboards, online spots—grab viewers' attention. Dan Davids, executive vice president and general manager, says his favorite ploy was a billboard for January special Barbarians, which had arrows protruding from it. He's mum on specifics about his marketing budget, lest competitors poach ideas.
"We've started to hit our stride," Davids says. He credits shows like Tsars of Russia
and The Alamo, as well as weekly series such as Mail Call
and Modern Marvels, with luring viewers—and keeping them hooked. Indeed, these series, among others, can regularly draw more than 1 million viewers.
Key to the channel's turnaround is reaching beyond older men, its traditional core audience.
Ratings among men 18-34 and 18-49 are up (the network skews about 72% male). Davids credits the boost to technology-themed series like Wild West Tech, which explains historical gadgets, and Tactical to Practical, about military technology that is now mainstream. But the network isn't looking to tussle with MTV.
"Younger, not young, is the word for us," says Davids. "We'd like more 35-year-olds to come to the network." History hopes to hook them with Digging for the Truth, debuting in first quarter 2005, a weekly series uncovering ancient archeological history. Another new entry, Decisive Battles, slated for the third quarter, will reconstruct famous military battles using computer technology.
Big specials also abound. On Sept. 12, History will debut its latest American war story, The First Invasion: The War of 1812. The famed statesman and inventor gets his own two-hour special when Benjamin Franklin
kicks off in December. For international buffs, The True Story of Alexander, about Alexander the Great, launches in November, and a special on the French revolution begins in early 2005.
All these programs are boosted by unexpected publicity. The network pops up in unexpected places.
On HBO's The Sopranos, Tony Soprano likes to tune in. He was watching History Channel during the recent season finale. The network also gets mentioned on Saturday Night Live, Late Night With David Letterman
and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. In Tom Clancy's latest novel, The Teeth of the Tiger, there are, according to Davids, six mentions. And Davids' mother called to say the channel popped up several times in the thriller she's reading, Killer Smile
by Lisa Scottoline.
History's pop-culture status is also good for business. Says Davids: "The channel has become a fabric of the American media landscape."