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In my three years as head of Nielsen research for Discovery Channel U.S., I had the opportunity to sit in on a fair number of program pitches. I found that much of the discussion about the channel's needs revolved around intangible characteristics such as look, feel and tone. These elements are important, but subjective, and the emphasis differed from one conversation to the next.
October 1, 2002

In my three years as head of Nielsen research for Discovery Channel U.S., I had the opportunity to sit in on a fair number of program pitches. I found that much of the discussion about the channel’s needs revolved around intangible characteristics such as look, feel and tone. These elements are important, but subjective, and the emphasis differed from one conversation to the next.

Producers’ note-taking often picked up speed, however, when hard facts – including network distribution, primetime household ratings, target demographic and male/female split – came up. These statistics provide filmmakers with a basic understanding of a broadcaster’s needs. Producers who anchor their pitch to these key points enhance their ability to sell a program idea.

Network distribution

Are you talking to a big fish or a little fish, one with a primarily urban audience or one that reaches into every cable home in the nation? Channels that reach only a small fraction of the national audience, such as Outdoor Life Network, increase viewers primarily through subscriber growth. Fully distributed networks, such as A&E, seek to drive growth through an intense focus on raising the ratings within their target demographic.

Appreciating these differences makes it easier for producers to clearly outline how their doc can contribute to the creation of a new and unique network brand, or how it fits perfectly into an established brand, depending on the broadcaster.

Primetime household ratings

Primetime is the key part of the day for all channels. It’s when they generate the majority of revenue, and it’s the main concern for advertisers. The number of original hours, budgets and even the ability to promote films all depend on ratings. In the second quarter of 2002, TLC averaged 0.93% of households in primetime, while Travel Channel averaged 0.30%. For some perspective, Lifetime, the top-rated U.S. cable net, averaged a 2.1% household rating in the same period.

Knowing where a network is, or isn’t, in the ratings game is one more piece of information that can help filmmakers adapt their program proposals to the resources available.

Target demographic

All broadcasters strive to deliver a concentrated slice of the television audience to advertisers. Knowing which demographic a channel caters to and couching program ideas as friendly to that demographic will pique programmer interest.

Discovery Channel, for example, seeks an upscale audience in the 25 to 54 age range with a male skew; Animal Planet seeks viewers 18 to 49 and aims for homes with children. These are wide slices, but with an increasing number of baby boomers achieving senior citizen status, a large portion of the viewing audience is headed outside these targets.

Understanding a network’s desire to focus on a specific segment of viewers allows producers to position their pitches so they appeal to a certain demographic.

Male/Female split of viewers

Broadcasters often say they seek to appeal to both men and women. However, their programming choices sometimes give the impression that they heavily favor one or the other. The reality is usually somewhere in between.

Determining this position will help filmmakers exploit opportunities that exist between the balance a network says it wants and the balance it maintains.

Stay tuned

Statistics in these four areas represent information that is generally available about a broadcaster. While it is preferable for the filmmaker to have gathered this data before presenting a program idea, programming executives can also be a good source. For example, Mary Ellen Iwata, vice president of development for TLC, says she keeps these figures at her fingertips. ‘Familiarity gives producers a good idea of the quality and type of programming on our air,’ she notes.

Armed with the details of a broadcaster’s network distribution, primetime household ratings, target demographic and male/female split, a filmmaker will have good perspective heading into a pitch. Still, these facts are most useful as a complement to the more qualitative elements that can only be gleaned from watching a channel’s programs.

John Palumbi is a Baltimore, U.S.-based consultant.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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