Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

What Does History Pay for Programming?

The ‘Sweet Spot’ for History

In our previous post, we recapped the concept of the network ‘Sweet Spot’, and analyzed A&E’s commission costs. (See Archive: March 3, 2010).

This week we look at the U.S. History channel, which is also owned by AETN, and its sister brands History International and Military History.

History is distributed to more than 98 million of the 115 million U.S. TV homes.

In recent years, History’s program mix has turned away from pure history documentaries to a mix of history and ‘American Originals’ series (dubbed ‘History Made Every Day’), led by Ice Road Truckers.

History carefully distinguishes between the ‘American Originals’ category, which evolved from the classic observational documentary, and semi-scripted ‘Reality’ shows like MTV’s Jersey Shore.  

In 2009, History tied for #7 in Adults 18+ among all ad-supported cable networks in primetime, with 1.1 million viewers. History also cracked the Top 10 for the first time ever in its target Adults 25-54 demo, finishing #9 with 598,000 viewers. 

History was the home to two 2009 Top 10 Non-fiction cable series amongst Adults 18+, including: Ice Road Truckers (#7, 2.5 million) and Pawn Stars (#9, 2.3 million).

In 2010, Pawn Stars rocketed into the #1 spot for Non-fiction series amongst Adults 18+, with 3.9 million viewers. American Pickers (3.0 million viewers amongst Adults 18+) is #3 overall and the #1 new cable series so far this year.

History’s principal competitors are Discovery, TLC, Food, SYFY, Spike and Nat Geo.

And now for the numbers:

History Commissions
($’000 / primetime hour)        


Coming Soon! ‘Sweet Spot’ Report

What Do Channels Pay for Programs?
Our Research Findings for Purchase Soon

Our original research findings about the ‘Sweet Spots’ for 25+/- U.S. channels covers:

  • Network budget benchmarks for original commissions
  • Several levels: Signature, High, ‘Sweet Spot’ and Low
  • We cover ‘the biggies’ and diginets

If the data is available, we include:

  • Acquisition costs
  • Copro contributions
  • Benchmark costs for typical genres

The unique and valuable ‘Sweet Spot’ Report covers Discovery Networks, OWN Oprah Winfrey Network, AETN Networks including History, truTV, MTV, Nat Geo and many more.

How to Purchase the ‘Sweet Spot’ Data
Our 2010 archive, INCLUDING NEW RESEARCH FINDINGS, will soon be available for electronic purchase from  We’re finalizing the purchase details now.

If you need ‘Sweet Spot’ data urgently, please email Peter Hamilton.


Note: This data is taken from recent confidential interviews with producers, network executives, distributors and experts, as well as from published sources. Actual budgets and deliverables vary from project to project.

What the Sources Say about History …

  • When an AETN network like History commissions a program, it is a work-for-hire project for which producers rarely retain any rights or equity. The AETN model is to obtain rights for all territories and platforms, forever. There are few exceptions.
  • History commissions more than 400 original hours a year.
  • History’s ‘High’ production cost estimate ($425) is for a successful prime time ‘American Originals’ series.
  • History’s ‘American Originals’ genre closely matches A&E’s ‘Real Life’ category, though AETN insiders strictly apply these terms to each distinctive brand. (Check for comparable A&E ‘Sweet Spots’ in our March 4 Post.)
  • As with A&E, History is likely to increase its budgets for shows that are firmly established, but that face furious competition.  
  • Line items where costs may be increased for a successful ‘American Originals’ series include:  longer shoots to capture more challenging sequences, extended time in post-production, an investment to clear a popular music cue, and stepped up payments to producers and key talent to reward them for their performances.
  • History’s ‘Sweet Spot’ ($300) is for a rock-solid documentary series like The Universe or an ‘American Originals’ series that delivers week after week.  
  • The ‘Low’ benchmark ($225) is the ballpark cost for an entry-level ‘American Originals’ series or a formatted documentary series, like Modern Marvels.
  • History’s 2010 ‘Signature’ documentary series is America The Story of US. The CGI-rich budget is said to be around $1.25 million per hour for 12 x one hour episodes. 
  • In 2011, History will test the Non-Fiction category with the release of the mini-series, The Kennedys
  • History’s move away from a schedule populated by classic history documentary series may have created an empty niche for emerging history-focused channels like History International and the Smithsonian Channel.

…and HI and MH

  • History International schedules programs from the History archive as well as from History’s numerous international channels.
  • HI enjoys distribution to around 60 million U.S. homes.
  • HI commissions a handful of original programs, such as The Naked Archaeologist an irreverent, hosted Biblical Archaeology series.
  • HI’s audience skews strongly male. According to HI, “February 2010 was HI’s best month ever in primetime with all key demos: A25-54 with 132,000 impressions; M25-54 with 92,000 impressions and A18-49 with 95,000 impressions.”
  • Military History is a rerun channel with limited distribution and has no budget for original productions.

Next week: A Special on Bio, also an AETN channel and a sister brand to A&E. We look at the ‘Sweet Spot’. And at how the commissioning process works at Bio. Watch out – its a benchmark mini-study of how a channel goes about commissioning programs.

Coming soon: HBO, Nat Geo, Scripps Networks, Smithsonian, Canadian channels, BBC, Arte, Music Rights, Digital Deliverables and much, much more.

BTW: Many thanks for your your feedback!  We update a post if we either get it wrong … or not right enough.

And please forward to your friends and colleagues.


  1. Pingback: SyFy: Reality for Men: What’s New? Who’s Producing? How Many? How Much? «

  2. Hi,

    My name is Sandie Banda a Zambia based in Cape Town i produced a historical documentary on Lusaka the capital city of Zambian,

    Zambia was celebrating her 100 years of existence
    I was wandering if you do buy or hire documentaries

    If you’re interested give me a call for your viewing


    100 years Lusaka is an edutainment documentary that explores the history of Zambia’s celebrating her 100 years of her existence dating back from 1913 to 2013.
    A city that was designed by professor Ashed UK University to only accommodate 400 000 people, today the population has grown to over 3 million people
    The documentary high lights the past, present and the future of the Capital city -Lusaka. There is a great concern by indigenous citizens who wants to relocated the Capital City to some other place due to the fast growing population in the city which has brought a negative impart on the city plan such as roads, unplanned residential areas and drainage’s, therefore the Zambian Government through Lusaka City council and International partners is working out a master plan to resolve this issue.

    The story is told through it’s icons citizens such us first president of Zambia David Kenneth Kaunda, former American Ambassador to Zambia Mr Storela, the Major of Lusaka his Hon Daniel Chisenga, old footage, aerial shots and unique ways of story telling.
    It also gives us an insight of the Lusaka’s tourist attraction and potential investment opportunities

    Directors Intention

    I was thrilled and excised to know that Zambia a country with a population of 13 million was celebrating 100 years of her existence.
    My goal was to document the history of Zambia and preserve our African culture identity through Film
    The motivation came about after discovering the rich history of Zambia and how it has developed in the past 100 years.
    Today Zambia is a centre of tourism attraction and potential investment destination
    The story is told through high profiled citizens icons, Ariel shots, and archives footage

    Director’s biography and Filmography

    Sandie Banda a Filmmaker and an Actor has produced a number of films ranging from short films, Documentaries, and Feather Films that has been aired on local and International TV stations and Festivals.
    His productions try to address human moral behaviour change and l equal rights

    Contact: Sandie Banda
    Cell: 0734793791
    Email: [email protected]
    Produced by Sandie Banda
    Cape Town

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