Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

NOVA Tops 4.5 Million Viewers: Trends, Filters, and Recent Greenlights

NOVA is PBS’s signature Science strand.

It is presented by WGBH Boston and carried on almost all of PBS’s 350+ stations.


  • Despite generally shrinking audiences for broadcasters, NOVA’s 3-Season rating trend is positive:
    • 1.95 HH (2014-15)
    • 1.89 HH (2015-16)
    • 1.99 HH (2016-17).
  • The Median Age of NOVA viewers is 63.
  • This year’s quick turnaround special Eclipse Over America attracted 4.6 million viewers.


  • NOVA is broadcast on Wednesdays at 9 pm, 47-49 times a year.
  • The other weeks are filled by Pledge fundraising campaigns.
  • The season starts in late September or October.

NOVA’s Highest-rated Recent Shows

  • “TSV” is Time Spent Viewing, a key measure of audience engagement.
  • NOVA viewers do stay tuned!

Top 5

  • Iceman Reborn aired in Fall 2015, and follows Gary Staub as he brings Otzi, a 5000 year old mummy to life and preserves him with 3D modeling.
  • Space & Astronomy is a category that performs well.
  • Eclipse Over America tracked the path of the August 2017 total eclipse.

The Pipeline

  • Each year, NOVA delivers: 20-25 new shows and 26+/- repeats.

Programming Filters

  • According to NOVA Senior Series Producer Melanie Wallace, “Our pipeline involves a mix of programs that are mission-based and others that are green-lit for their expected popularity amongst our viewers.”
  • “We do films that are stories and not topics. Storytelling is the driver.”
  • NOVA’s short list of filters are:  Stunning Visuals Timeliness, Unique Access, Compelling Characters, Cutting Edge Science, and Importance
  • Medicine and Health are topic areas that underperform for NOVA.

“Science Detective” Stories

Recent successful examples:

  • Poisoned Water: the search for how the Flint water system became so contaminated
  • Killer Volcanoes, Killer Floods and Killer Hurricanes: The premise of each show was to solve an ancient mystery by looking for clues to understand 3 different ancient cataclysms.
  • Holocaust Escape Tunnel follows the archeologist looking for evidence of an escape tunnel from the Nazi killing fields in Lithuania.
  • Why Trains Crash analyzes the how and why of train crashes.

Editorial Control

  • NOVA is very hands-on at every stage of the project: “We review treatments, edits at various stages, rough cuts, the fine cut, etc.”
  • “Producers and funders such as foundations understand that we exercise editorial control over each project.”
  •  “All productions are rigorously fact checked both by the production team and by the NOVA team.


  • Major funding for NOVA is provided by The David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers and corporate sponsors, currently Draper Labs and 23and Me.


Digital Audience

  • NOVA enjoys heavy online traffic and schools outreach.
  • The Eclipse Over America episode reached 6.6 million people and had 335K streams.
  • Its Facebook live presentation had 941K views making it the most watched Facebook Live in PBS history.
  • Death Dive To Saturn reached 4 million people via TV and had 100K streams.

Tentpole Strategy

  • “Usually in Fall and Winter, we offer an extended series which we call a ‘tentpole event’ that is more than one hour dedicated to a single topic.”
  • “The new PBS strategy is to combine thematic programs from various strands with outside commissions to create extended thematic events.”
  • Recent tentpoles include:
    • Making North America
    • Treasures Of The Earth
    • Inside Animal Minds (three hours), which was packaged up by PBS with Inner Fish (three hours) from HHMI, and a nature special, Bionic Animals.
    • Upcoming, Jan 2018: Black Hole Apocalypse. Here is the sizzler.

Black Hole Apocalypse


  • Production budgets vary widely, and NOVA’s contribution can range from the full budget to a coproduction percentage.

Production Funding  

The mix in the NOVA pipeline varies from year to year:

  • Co-pros: 50/50% to 60/40%
  • Commissions: 50/50% to 60/40%
  • Acquisitions: 1-3 projects per year

Co-Production Partners

  • Broadcaster partners include ARTE, BBC, C4 and C5 in the UK, sometimes ABC Australia, and NHK Japan.
  • Germany tends not to contribute as a co-pro partner, because there are fewer one hour science documentaries on their air.
  • France has expanded its opportunities for copros with the new France 5 Science slot and with the ongoing Arte Science slot.

NOVA Programs & Producers, 2016-17

Secrets of the Sky Tombs – Sky Door Films
The Nuclear Option – Miles O’Brien Productions
Ultimate Cruise Ship – Windfall Films
The Origami Revolution – Fact + Film , director Francois Xavier Vives, La Compagnie Taxi Brousse, Leonardo Film, and Sarah Holt Productions
Why Trains Crash – Lawrence Klein Productions LLC
Holocaust Escape Tunnel – Lone Wolf Media
Building Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb – Windfall Films
Chinese Chariots Revealed – Lion TV
Poisoned Water –Blue Spark Collaborative LLC
Eclipse Over America – Windfall Films
Death Dive to Saturn – Terry Randall Productions
Secrets of the Shining Knight – Pangloss Films,
Ghosts of Stonehenge – A Terra Mater Factual Studios/Oxford Scientific Films
Secrets of the Forbidden City – Lion TV
Killer Volcanoes / Hurricanes / Floods – Blink Productions
Extreme Animal Weapons – BBC
Bird Brain – Terra Mater Factual Studios
Day The Dinosaurs Died – Barcroft Media

NOVA Programs & Producers, 2017-18 (Confirmed to date)

Black Hole Apocalyse  2 hours –  Southpaw Productions
The Impossible Flight  2 hours –  Far West Productions
First Face of America  – Shining Red Productions
Great Escape at Dunkirk – Blink Productions
Prediction by the Numbers – Dan McCabe Productions

Many Thanks To…

  • Melanie Wallace and the NOVA team at WGBH Boston
  • The PBS Programming and Business Intelligence teams for providing viewing data and context.

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Deeper Analysis

Archive Valley

The Archive Valley team in their Paris office