Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

The PBS Series Ranker for Eleven Strands: Average Audience and Trends, 2015-2018

Last week I shared my survey of the PBS audience in the Netflix Era.

Many readers commented on my Takeaway that PBS is defying its recent reputation as ‘old school’ and ‘yesterday.’

  • PBS is gaining stature against the Wild West of online viewing because it is a brand that is highly trusted for its curated content.
  • PBS compares favorably to Netflix because it also provides an uninterrupted programming experience .

This week’s snapshot covers the ratings and trends for 11 PBS strands across multiple genres from Drama to independent documentaries.

The Big Picture Chart:




  • Science: NOVA.
  • History: American ExperienceAmerican Masters and the ‘ancestry-unraveler’ Finding Your Roots.
  • Drama: Masterpiece, until 2015-16 home of the mega-hit Downton Abbey
  • Lifestyle: Antiques Roadshow, and Great British Baking Show which bucks the trend by growing year-to-year.
  • Wildlife: Nature
  • Current Affairs: Frontline
  • And the ‘Indie Documentary’ slots Independent Lens POV.

Volume of PBS Originals / Year
(The estimate includes the strands and PBS National commissions)

  • History: 70+ hours
  • Science: 40-50 hours
  • Natural History: 30-40
  • Total: 140-160


  • PBS is a private non-profit corporation whose members are America’s 350 public TV stations that reach nearly all 119.6 million US TV homes
  • PBS’s average primetime rating of 1.32 is down from 1.41 when I last looked in 2017.


I find it helpful to view PBS’s primetime programs as originating from sources that are closely tied by mission, strategy, funding, cost-sharing, promotions and much more.

  • The weekly primetime strands are presented by the main producing stations, WGBH, WNET and WETA.
  • PBS National provides limited series and specials.
  • Smaller PBS stations, American Public Television and other distributors also present programs for the PBS system.

More Reading

Thanks for this Series of Posts

  • I’m very grateful to the PBS Business Intelligence for providing data and context.
  • In upcoming posts I’ll cover in detail the PBS audience and recent hits for: Science / NOVA and the History Strands.

Deeper Analysis