Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Discovery vs Nat Geo vs History. Race for UK Gold, Part 3. How Far Behind Broadcast? Plus: Our New Global Doc Buyers’ Guide

Here are my quick Takeaways before a summer getaway.

Business Model:

  • UK factual channels attract relatively small audiences compared with the broadcasters.
  • However: Advertisers are attracted to their relatively upscale viewers.
  • And the networks earn subscriber fees from Sky and other platforms.
  • On the cost side, all UK factual channels benefit from a business model that relies on imported US programs. These are mostly owned outright by the channels.
  • The big US franchise series and specials – like Deadliest Catch are by and large the top performers in the UK.
  • The UK channels also commission locally. Big, noisy American characters can’t dominate their schedules.
  • Nat Geo, Discovery and A+E have each set up a new pipeline for their international channels. They share costs for qualified new programs that will play across multiple territories.
  • They also create local and regional versions of a handful of hit US series.

I will cover these issues and developments in greater detail in the coming months.

Here are the top shows for the nonfiction channels versus the top-rated factual program for each broadcast channel.

And here are the average ratings with year-to-year changes:

Ratings (Average January 1 – June 26 0600-2600)
20112011 Share (%)20122012 Share (%)Y-Y +/-Y-Y +/- (%)
1Discovery29,8000.2634,1000.30  4,300             15.38
2History16,5000.1525,6000.23  9,100             53.33
3Nat Geo18,8000.1717,3000.15  -1,500             -11.76
4C&IN18,6000.1616,7000.15  -1,900             -6.25



  • Discovery UK launched 1st amongst American factual channel exports.
  • That was in 1988 when Clark Bunting led the Discovery team and, fresh from CBS International, I served as senior consultant.
  • The fairly consistent message we heard from UK ‘experts’ was “We Brits will never watch your (inferior) American programs.  And anyway you won’t make any money!”
  • Wrong:
    • Discovery International generates more than 40% of DCI’s revenues.
    • UK is the jewel in the crown.
    • And Discovery International gains importance by the day as Discovery Networks US recovers from the serious (half a $US billion!) opportunity costs associated with the OWN Oprah Winfrey Network debacle as well as the many challenges faced by Discovery Channel.
Top 10 Discovery UK Programs (2006-2012 YTD)
1Deadliest Catch26-Oct-10460,9002.34
2Gold Rush22-May-12430,6001.69
3My Shocking Story15-Nov-07390,4001.92
4Wheeler Dealers11-Oct-11378,0001.45
5American Choppers16-Jan-06284,5001.46
6Will Ferrell and Bear Grylls: Born Survivors25-Jul-09273,2001.91
7Killing Bin Laden18-May-11272,2000.97
8Alone in the Wild5-Oct-11253,9000.95
9Bear Grylls: Born Survivor18-Jul-11246,5000.92
10How It’s Made23-Feb-06245,4001.31


History / A+E Networks

  • A+E Networks’ corporate parents napped for decades while Discovery invested heavily in going global.
  • History’s recent US hits are proving to be highly exportable. They are fueling a catch up in UK viewing versus Discovery.
  • The Kennedy’s – a scripted series that went pear-shaped in the US – is an international hit! That’s a big strategic message!
  • Crime & Investigation is a much stronger franchise in the UK than in US. It’s a reminder that there’s value in the content-driven, niche franchises.
Top 10 History UK Programs (2006-2012 YTD)
1Ice Road Truckers 216-Oct-08389,1001.86
2The Kennedys7-Apr-11375,9001.66
3How Life Began23-Mar-09369,0001.97
4IRT – Deadliest Roads16-Dec-10345,1001.58
5Storage Wars17-May-12306,3001.42
6Pawn Stars17-Oct-11290,1001.02
7102 Minutes That Changed America11-Sep-11230,7001.72
8American Restoration (Series One)1-Aug-11222,7000.84
9American Pickers24-Oct-11222,0001.03
10The Lost JFK Tapes: The Assassination3-Mar-11194,1001.00


Nat Geo

  • UK-centric Bloody Tales of the Tower is #1 in 2012, showing there’s value in local.
  • But the best performers on Nat Geo’s Top 10 list are the content-driven specials and series that are no longer the focus of Nat Geo US.
  • That foreshadows future struggles to align Nat Geo International’s yellow border legacy with the noisy characters coming from Washington.
Top 10 Nat Geo UK Programs (2006-2012 YTD)
1Engineering Connections8-Sep-08323,7001.49
2Area 51: I Was There5-Jun-11299,1001.02
3Gospel of Judas9-Apr-06276,7001.52
49/11: Ten Years Later7-Sep-11213,6000.90
5Air Crash Investigation14-Mar-11213,2000.73
6Crash Scene Investigation11-Apr-06208,6001.14
7Bloody Tales of the Tower16-Apr-12196,4000.78
8Seconds From Disaster19-Sep-06179,2001.02
9In The Womb21-Jan-07168,9000.78


C&I is an A+E Network

Top 10 Crime & Investigation Network Programs (2006-2012 YTD)
1Curious and Unusual Deaths18-May-12206,3002.74
2Born to Kill29-Jan-12190,8003.54
3The Krays By Fred Dinenage15-Mar-10184,1000.68
4Crimes that Shook Britain18-Mar-12170,0000.59
5Myra Hindleys Prison Years12-Jun-11163,0001.35
6At Home with the Noonans22-Apr-12155,4005.89
7Girl Fight7-Jun-12154,9001.79
8Steven Seagal: Lawman5-Jan-10152,9000.54
9Crime Re-Licences7-Jan-12152,1005.50
10Fred Dinenage: Murder Casebook15-May-11151,3000.54


Editorial assistance: Alexander Watson 


International Documentary Buyers’ Guide 2012

Which channels worldwide buy docs?

  • How many do they buy?
  • What are they looking for?
  • Who are the key contacts?
  • How do you reach them?
  • If we have the data, what do they pay?

The International Documentary Buyers’ Guide 2012 is an invaluable resource for producers who are working on strategies to pitch ideas or who are selling completed programs to channels.

  • 17 Countries
  • 40 Buyers

Based on original interviews with broadcasters, funders and senior producers.

The Guide includes:

  • Executive Personnel
  • Current Strands & Slots
  • Recent Green Lights
  • Channel Profiles
  • Vital Links
  • Takeaways and Analysis

Created for Hot Docs Forum 2012.

Download now