Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Titles: How To Win In The New Programming Arms Race

(Originally posted Sept 7, 2015)

The head of a mid-sized U.S. network was searching for a breakthrough to the next level.

  • I asked him: “What would be the answer to your prayers?”

He replied:

  • “A fresh, loud, buzzy show that feels unique and has breakout ratings potential.”
  • “What Queer Eye was to Bravo or Ruby to Style.”
  • “We’re looking for a show that becomes part of pop culture, not just capitalizing on existing pop culture.”

‘A show becoming pop culture’ was the ‘Old Hail Mary’.

  • That was way back in 2010, before even more intense competition, advanced EPG’s (electronic program guides) and online video platforms disrupted the model.

So, what’s the ‘New Hail Mary’?

The Case of ‘The Clever Monkeys”

Titles are key factors in consumer decision-making in the new, digital eco-system.

  • They experience a flood of programming options.
  • Their choices are heavily influenced by the title, tagline and poster art.

Programming execs and producers can take a lesson from the blastoff of the hip, online content aggregator, Upworthy:


Upworthy’s success is based heavily on its commitment to great titles.

  • The Upworthy team tests 25 headlines for each piece of content.
  • Here’s an example of a title that earned 59X the views of an initial effort:


Upworthy’s focus on titles is highly relevant to the competitive, leveling environment where video-based networks, subscription services, and all kinds of content makers are offering their programs.

The Case of ‘Wives with Knives’

I administered the ‘Upworthy Titles Test’ to a selection of U.S. channels

Only one network aced the test:

  • That’s ID, Discovery’s Crime-themed channel.
  • ID has accelerated from minor Discovery digi-net to a U.S. mini-major with a growing global footprint.

Lacking big programming budgets and hit talent, ID relentlessly focuses on the titling process. That has been a big driver of its standout growth.

There’s no doubt about what you’ll get when you see titles like Wives With Knives, Fatal Vows, Pretty Dangerous, Frenemies: Loyalty Turned Lethal, Nightmare Next Door. Dates From Hell and Beauty Queen Murders.

Titles Are Pop Culture

In fact, ID has been so successful that its show titles, as much as its shows, have become the pop culture.

ID’s titles were even featured in a hilarious episode of South Park (Sadly, I can’t share my clip).

The New Hail Mary

  • And that’s the New Hail Mary for programmers and producers: “Our titles, programs & brand become the pop culture!”


  • EPGs, apps and browser-based video tools are changing the game for consumers and content providers.
  • I have been studying the complex titling process for channels and leading producers.
  • The work covers the creative, legal, operational and other workflows and processes.
  • A focus on improving your titling workflows can make your pipeline of programs more competitive.
  • Send me an email if you’d like to learn more.

Last word:

  • Titles are as important as content.
  • Unless you have a great title, consumers won’t find your great story.