Female-skewing cable networks sometimes get media publicity as much for the melodrama created on their docudrama reality shows as anything else. But several of the more male-skewing, non-sports cable networks are creating a bit of drama of their own by quietly drawing both larger viewer numbers and advertiser attention.
History, formerly The History Channel, is averaging 1.9 million total viewers a night in primetime, fourth highest among all cable networks, while Discovery Channel is averaging 1.2 million (11th highest) and truTV averages 1.1 million, (ranked 17th), according to Nielsen research data. The highest female skewing cable network, The Learning Channel, reaches 1 million viewers and is ranked 20th.
One explanation for the growth comes with those three male-skewing networks, along with The National Geographic Channel, now filling their schedules with more real-life documentary-type shows, a genre that is growing in popularity with viewers and advertisers.
"The unscripted genre is the fasting growing segment in television," says Linda Yaccarino, EVP and general manager at Turner Entertainment Networks. "And Turner now has three networks with distinct audiences-TNT for scripted drama, TBS for comedy and truTV for reality," which she says makes all three an easier sell to advertisers trying to target audiences.
Turner's truTV, formerly Court TV, made its name change and programming transition beginning in January 2008, and has been fine tuning its content ever since.
Among the network's highest rated shows are Operation Repo, Hardcore Pawn, All Worked Up, Disorder in the Court and Southern Fried Stings.
History has also changed its image and program offerings over the past few years, moving away from its traditional wartime and historical documentaries to more updated reality shows that focus on present day people in different occupations and locations.
Among it's top rated shows are Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers, Swamp People, American Pickers, Ax Men and Mounted in Alaska.
In 2010, History also brought out its first competition series, Top Shot.
Not forgetting its roots, the network still does the occasional big budget history-related series, and May 30 will mark the primetime premiere of the ambitious documentary series Gettysburg, executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott.
History is also presenting its historical programming in a ways other than documentary form. The network just greenlit a scripted miniseries about the Hatfields and McCoys that will star Kevin Costner, who will also co-produce.
Nat Geo Channel, which is 37th among all cable networks in primetime with 437,000 viewers per night, has also undergone a change in programming type. The network still does shows about animals, environment, travel and adventure but has added more series centered around people.
Rich Goldfarb, Nat Geo's SVP of media sales, describes the programming on his network as "factual entertainment, taking the intrinsic values of National Geographic and making it interesting and informative."
Goldfarb says when the network sells advertising it bases its pitch on six different "pillars," or types of programming and events. The first is alternative programming, which includes shows like Alaska State Troopers, Locked Up Abroad and Wild Justice. The second is "Great Quests," which includes programming during its Expedition Week. The third pillar is "Preserve the Planet," which gets big play in events the network holds. The fourth pillar is "Extreme Engineering" and includes shows like Ultimate Factories.
The fifth pillar is "Sci Tech," which will include new shows like Rocket City Rednecks, about a group of scientists who work in the space technology industry in Huntsville, Ala. The city is nicknamed "The Rocket City" for its ties to the U.S. space missions dating back to the 1960's.
A sixth pillar is news, which the network will be adding, and it will be represented by the network's new "Inside" franchise. Examples of shows in this category-Inside Air Force One and Inside the State Department-will offer viewers access to places they normally cannot see.
Among the male-skewing networks, Discovery has undergone the least change. Many of the network's top primetime series have been long-running successes. And the network has stayed true to its mission of airing non-fiction content in genres that include science and technology, exploration, adventure and history.
Discovery boasts that in 2010, the network aired more first-run programming than any other non-sports cable network and it also aired more primetime original series episodes that drew more than one million viewers.
Among its top series are Deadliest Catch, MythBusters, Dirty Jobs, Man vs. Wild, Stormchasers and Swamp Loggers. The network is also known for its Shark Week programming.
And Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery's Dirty Jobs, is one of the most recognizable faces on television, also doubling as a TV ad spokesman for Ford, along with assorted other brands.
Historically, these networks were reaching mainly a 25-54 audience, but with the changes in programming the median age audiences for most are now solidly in the mid-40s, younger than most of the broadcast networks' primetime audiences. Nielsen data puts the median-age primetime audience of Discovery at 42, with truTV at 44 and History at 48.
Peter Olsen, SVP of ad sales for History, says the network is even starting to get more viewers in the 18-34 demo, an audience that in the past would not have tuned in. He says Top Shot has a median age of 39 and Top Gear, another new series has a median age of 36.
With this new programming being noticed more by viewers, each of these networks has also seen growth in advertiser base.
"In the past year we have added close to 100 new advertisers and plan to bring in more in this upfront," Yaccarino says.
Olsen says History's ad client base has grown by about 40 percent in the past three years, and there has been a big influx of quick service restaurants and movie companies. He attributes this to the shift away from the network's traditional documentary-type historical programming.
And surprisingly, the largest advertiser on History in 2010 was one normally linked with female-skewing networks: packaged-goods advertiser Procter & Gamble.
"That," Olsen says, "shows how our audience is broadening and growing."
History's other major advertiser clients include GEICO, Bank of America, General Motors, Ford, Honda, McDonald's, Verizon, MillerCoors, Denny's and Domino's.
Goldfarb says demand for Nat Geo inventory has been strong in second quarter-larger than supply-and he is expecting a solid upfront. "We do business in virtually all the ad categories but our biggest spenders are in auto, financial, travel and technology. We can't match the top rated cable networks based on scale, but we will do very well with advertisers," he says.
Goldfarb adds that the network historically has not done a lot of product integrations but recently has done more in shows such as Dog Whisperer, Shark Men and Rocket City Rednecks. Goldfarb says the network will also be selling presenting, lead and supporting sponsorships in the upfront for various shows.
Speaking of upfronts, Olsen sees History as being in a position to compete with TNT and USA Network for dollars, as well as perhaps luring some money away from broadcast by advertisers looking to reach more men.
TruTV will head into the upfront touting its viewer gains: Hardcore Pawn, for instance, is up 30% in viewers over last year. And ratings growth by Operation Repo and All Worked Up has propelled truTV to average more than 1 million viewers per night in primetime.
Some of that growth can also be attributed to the network airing a few of this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Tournament games. And while the games led to short-term primetime ratings growth, Yaccarino says a share of first-time viewers, lured to the network by March Madness, have stuck around.
Yaccarino also says the network will sell its first off-network reality show in the upfront, Wipeout, which airs on ABC on the broadcast side.
"We bought the rights because we feel it fits into our programming mission of unscripted, high-octane reality programming," Yaccarino says.
Another unscripted, high-octane bit of programming may also affect the male-skewing networks: the NFL. If the lockout continues and ends up delaying the start of the season, Olsen believes it could bring more dollars their way, from clients looking to reach men.
"We are positioned to do extremely well if [that happens]," Olsen says. "We have been talking with the major sports advertisers and do have a contingency plan if the NFL season does not start on time."
While most advertisers did not want to speak for attribution, citing the upcoming upfront negotiations, Francois Lee, VP, activation director at MediaVest, says the changes in programming these networks have accomplished and the growth of viewers is, "from a marketers perspective, great. It gives us more options for our clients."
Lee says History has become attractive to more advertisers because "it is no longer just a hardcore historic military programming network, but its programming is broader while still having historical overtones."
Lee also believes Nat Geo's new schedule is reaching younger viewers-another positive for advertisers. And truTV's carrying of the NCAA tournament games not only brought in new viewers but the new advertisers that will help it down the road.
Discovery, says Lee, has always produced solid programming and "has been true to its brand of science and exploration, and its schedule fits in very well together." He adds that even with its target mission, the Discovery audience is very broad.