StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

U.S. Factual Networks: Who’s Hot? Who’s Not!

How are they doing?

We invited John Morse, president of the research firm Byron Media to help us assemble a snapshot of how the top U.S. factual channels have gained or lost prime time audience this year.

Our list is not apples-to-apples:

  • It includes channels that are dedicated to Docs and Unscripted, for example Nat Geo and Discovery
  • And others that schedule a mix of Docs and Reality with Scripted (e.g., A&E and MTV)
  • Many channels that schedule Factual are unrated, or were not rated in ‘09

Quantity Not Quality

  • Most ad-supported channels sell media based on their target demos.
  • However the ‘average prime time’ is a very helpful measure of scale and performance
  • Read’s network profiles and analysis of channel schedules for more details about 20+ of  these channels (and several others), their target demos, and their budget ‘sweet spots’.


Average Quarterly Primetime Viewing / 3Q’10 versus 3Q’09 

INVEST. DISCOVERY304          18412065.2%
DISC SCIENCE201          1326952.3%
MTV952          66129144.0%
HISTORY1,291          93635537.9%
E!589          48710220.9%
BIO165          1402517.9%
BRAVO751          6688312.4%
HISTORY INTL166          152149.2%
MILITARY121          111109.0%
TRAVEL399          370297.8%
A&E1,172      1,087857.8%
DISCOVERY956          887697.8%
OXYGEN384          357277.6%
TRU TV838          789496.2%
BET562          534285.2%
ANIMAL PLANET431          414174.1%
TLC864          850141.6%
FOOD905          911-6-0.7%
HGTV1,055      1,093-38-3.5%
SYFY950      1,001-51-5.1%
NAT GEO CH318          344-26-7.6%
WETV235          269-34-12.6%
STYLE122          140-18-12.9%
SPIKE632          728-96-13.2%
VH1348          532-184-34.6%
Factual Networks    14,711    13,7779346.8%

 Nielsen Media Research, 3Q 2009 and 2010


  • Largest audience (‘000)
    • History (1,291), A&E (1,172), HGTV (1,055), Discovery (956) and MTV (661)
  • Fastest growing channels (percent) 
    • ID: Investigation Discovery (65.2), Discovery Science (52.3), MTV (44.0), History (37.9) and E! (20.9)
    • VH1 is in the basement (-34.6)

The Factual Bucket: 14.7 million and Growing!

  •’s bucket of 25 Basic channels attracted 14.7 million average prime time viewers in 3Q’10
  • That’s a year-to-year increase of 6.8% for the Factual genre

Some surprising data:

  • The PBS audience grew 15.4% to 1,485,000
  • HBO is a pay TV channel and the home of irregularly-scheduled premium docs
    • HBO’s prime time audience dropped more than 10%
    • But HBO’s documentary unit measures its performance by Oscar nominations and sizzle versus ratings


It’s been a while since History moved away from prime time ‘history’ towards character-based series like Ice Road Truckers

  • History remains the #1 rated Factual network, and with a gain of 355,000 prime time viewers!

A single series – Jersey Shore – drove MTV’s dramatic turnaround!

Discovery’s investment in its digital channels is paying off

  • ID jumped into the evergreen Crime niche that was abandoned by Turner’s truTV (formerly Crime)
  • ID is the hottest channel in the business. There’s a way to go, but could Discovery’s Big Four become the Big Five?
  • Meanwhile truTV performed below the average growth rate for our bucket of channels
  • Science comes in at #2 on our growth chart, although from the audience base of a small digi-net

The Discovery Channel came back this year

  • But Discovery is a flagship channel that navigates a tricky course:  
  • It must sustain a great, quality brand at a time when viewers  enjoy lots of attractive options at the low end of the quality scale


OWN: Breaking News

Discovery Health becomes OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network on January 1

Coming Soon

  • The Top-rated U.S. Factual shows
    • How much does it cost to produce them?
  • And the UK’s list of the top Factual programs

Byron Media

Thanks to John Morse and Byron Media for contributing to this post. We are looking forward to future collaborations.

And please, send us your feedback!