StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

U.S. Factual Networks: Ten Year Viewing Trends. Sunny Side Takeaway #1

A 10-year ratings snapshot shows that U.S. factual networks are far from falling off a cliff.

And Europe has increased potential as a co-production partner.

That’s the message that I shared over and over in my panels and meetings at last week’s productive and enjoyable Sunny Side of the Doc.


  • Nielsen kindly shared a 10-year snapshot of U.S. prime time viewing for six channels.
  • They are A&E, Discovery, History, HGTV (Home & Garden), ID (Crime) and Nat Geo Channel.
  • Caution: The data is for total viewing, and not for the specific demo’s targeted by the channels.


We could write volumes about this revealing chart. To start, here are my initial comments:

  • After peaks in 2011-13, the declines are steepest for History and A&E.
    • In 2012, History delivered a huge scripted hit in Hatfields & McCoys, which I covered in this newsletter, describing a “monster audience” that hit 14.3 million viewers in the finale.
    • History briefly rocketed towards parity with the broadcast networks.
    • But viewers soon tired of the handful of reality series, notably Pawn Stars and Duck Dynasty, that A+E Networks had come to rely on.
    • Meanwhile, Netflix and a dozen channels piled into binge-viewed scripted series.
  • There were big gains for Discovery’s ID and Scripps’ HGTV:
    • Both channels expertly deliver ‘programming neighborhoods’ rather than appointment viewing.
    • One show is barely distinguished from the next.
    • ID seized the Crime space that was abandoned when Turner purchased Court TV and rebranded it as reality-focused TruTV.
    • The true-life Crime genre famously “appeals to Women, but Men don’t leave the room.”
    • ID was classed as a ‘digi-net’ but is now chasing Discovery Channel as the #1 network in the group.
    • But future growth may be tougher as Oxygen and other channels pile into female-targeted Crime.
  • Nat Geo was late to the channels business.
    • Its schedule shifted from classic  ‘yellow border’ factual to reality series like “Border Wars” …
    • And recently to big budget / A-lister tent poles like “Genius” that create buzz and draw viewers, but that haven’t lifted Nat Geo’s ratings like “Hatfields” once did for History.

The battery-powered commute to Sunny Side

Big Trends

Scale Matters

  • Producers are rushing to pitch Netflix, Amazon and other SVOD and other  online video services.
  • However, each year the channels combined spend $U.S. billions on original factual programs.
  • They enjoy long-term contracts with distributors like Comcast that operate highly profitable Internet and Telephone businesses.
  • The Cable / Satellite channels programming sector is mature.
  • But its not going to fall off a cliff like the Music or print Magazine businesses once did.

Opportunities Across the Pond

  • The happy buzz at Sunny Side revealed a thriving economy in Europe for the documentary and factual TV category.
    • The strong EC economy offers generous funding for public broadcasters, particularly in France and Germany.
    • The recent global success of “Versailles” points to Europe reaching a competitive quality level in Scripted that is being duplicated in Unscripted.
  • Meanwhile, U.S. factual channels are feeling the pinch from declining distribution and viewing.
    • They are returning to Factual programs in genres like History and Science.
    • These genres have the potential to be co-produced with well-funded European partners.
  • And that’s the best news that I can share from buzzy Sunny Side!

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