Docs

Natural History: Calling viewers back to nature

Like an animal on the prowl, broadcasters wanting to expand their natural history audience are attacking with rejuvenated marketing plans. Relying on the often older, higher income, male-skewed demo currently watching just isn't lucrative enough. Many channels, and even some savvy producers, are competing to get in the faces (and on the screens) of new viewers - and that usually leads them to the younger generation.
September 1, 2005

Like an animal on the prowl, broadcasters wanting to expand their natural history audience are attacking with rejuvenated marketing plans. Relying on the often older, higher income, male-skewed demo currently watching just isn’t lucrative enough. Many channels, and even some savvy producers, are competing to get in the faces (and on the screens) of new viewers – and that usually leads them to the younger generation.

As CE Ralf Blasius, who works on ZDF’s natural history programs, explains, ‘Natural history documentaries are an endangered species. It is a very specialized genre that blossomed in the ’70s, had its best time in the ’80s, and now has a problem because the people that invented it are getting old,’ he says. ‘If we want it to survive, we have to find a younger audience – that’s one of the biggest tasks we have as natural history commissioning editors or producers.’

For National Geographic Channel in the U.S., part of that hurdle is overcome by employing a vast amount of off-channel advertising, says executive VP of marketing and new media Steven Schiffman. For example, as part of Fox cable networks, Nat Geo has spots on about half a dozen Fox-controlled national networks. ‘We advertise leveraging all media, whether it be television, radio, newspaper or magazine,’ says Schiffman. ‘We’re a big believer in partaking in all different mediums.’

A recent collaboration with book and home entertainment retailer Barnes & Noble gave the brand good exposure. Customers strolling through the store could pick up a free Nat Geo DVD that contains episodes from the popular series Is it Real, Taboo and Explorer. (In turn, the channel promoted Barnes & Noble on air.) ‘We’re always looking at external partnerships like that,’ says Schiffman, noting that he is currently speaking with several other potential allies.

For the past year, National Geographic Channels International has rolled out the relaunch of its brand with a new graphics package and the tagline ‘Think Again.’ Senior VP of creative and marketing Guy Slattery explains that ngci has broadened the range of topics it covers in order to appeal to as general a group as possible. ‘From [the channel's] launch, we’ve inherited this brand from the magazine, and we definitely appeal to an older demo,’ says Slattery, noting that the age range varies greatly amongst NGCI’s 159 markets. ‘For the next generation of audience, we also need to be appealing to the [18- to 55-year-old] demo,’ he says.

This key market is ripe with early adaptors to technologies such as pay TV and mobile phones. With the overwhelming rise of mobile’s popularity, NGCI was eager to pair with Terra, a major Internet and phone company in Spain, to promote the In the Womb special, which follows the life of a fetus from conception to birth. Mobile users were able to download clips from the program into their phones, and Web surfers were able to stream five-minute previews of the show onto their computers pre-broadcast. Slattery says there were more than 2.2 million video streams in 10 days. ‘Internet penetration in Spain on the Terra platform we used reaches more people than our channels – it’s a very cost-effective way to reach a wide audience.’ When Womb broadcast on May 1 in Spain, it came second in ratings in the 10 P.M. slot (after a soccer match), and pushed NGCI’s primetime reach from 799,000 in April to 984,000 in the over-18 demo. ‘We went through the roof in terms of ratings,’ says Slattery.

Stephen Ellis, president of Toronto-based prodco Ellis Entertainment, is also keen on mobile opportunities. In addition to providing straightforward mobile content, he says he is actively looking at the possibilities of animal call ring tones. If the trend catches on, wildlife producers could use their catalogs to draw revenues from this alternative market, and to literally provide the call of the wild.

Austria’s ORF has also used phones in its marketing for the ‘Universum’ strand, but for interactive purposes. Head of the natural history unit Dr. Walter Köhler says two years ago, viewers were invited to call in and vote during orf’s eight-week summer marketing initiative, ‘Journey the World.’ Voters chose which continent they wanted to see profiled next. ‘Every show was related to another continent, so you could really make your own journey,’ says Köhler, adding that an Internet-based platform was also incorporated. While the standard ‘Universum’ primetime audience is over 50 years old, the online element did very well with younger people. Roughly 50,000 people voted via phone and Internet.

Stepping out of the world of wires and into the streets, ngci was aiming to reach the 18 to 55 demo when it used head-turning outdoor advertising to publicize Megastructures Week in Singapore a year ago. Everything from subway billboards in high-traffic stations to decorated trucks driving through town enticed citizens to tune in. ‘With on-ground marketing, you can reach a large percentage of the population very cost effectively,’ says Slattery. ‘Everyone travels by public transit there, so everyone would have seen it – the full age range.’

To promote its more cutting-edge programming, ZDF occasionally runs adverts on its own channel, but relies heavily on its content to broaden its viewer grab. And, as ce Blasius says, herding junior audiences to wildlife shows without losing the strong older demographic is key. He uses the successful ‘Wunderbare Welt’ (‘The Wonderful World’) natural history strand to prove his point. Of its approximately one million viewers, the 14- to 49-year-old share is roughly 6%. In order to lure younger audiences, fast-cut, modern-style docs are regularly interspersed into the strand. ‘They’re still natural history, but they look like an MTV video,’ says Blasius, citing a rapidly paced series called Built for the Kill that ZDF aired in 2003. ‘It often had ratings that were better than average, but we had a lot of letters from people who complained about the style. The conservative natural history audience doesn’t particularly like it.’

In order to get a bigger slice of the pie in the established nh market, some inventive prodcos are taking initiative by marketing in non-traditional ways. With 40 years of wildlife experience, Ellis believes program-makers are increasingly going to develop their own audiences, whether for smaller mobile forums or the Web. ‘You can establish relationships you couldn’t before because before you were reliant purely on the broadcasters. Now we have a shot at cultivating an audience like the over-50 set that are hungry for the traditional wildlife doc, but can’t find it on TV.’

Keeping the older demo happy while baiting the younger generation is difficult, but broadcasters and prodcos are out to prove that it can be done – with some help, of course, from a solid marketing campaign.

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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