History: Who’s Watching?

When it comes to audiences for history programs, the core viewers themselves aren't changing, but the scope of the viewership is getting wider.
January 1, 2009

Some say the history audience hasn’t changed. But the fact of the matter is, while the core group of history viewers is still just as dedicated to the genre as ever, broadcasters that focus on history programs are trying to draw in new viewers, thus changing the makeup of the audience.

Here’s a picture of the typical history viewer: First of all, it’s a he. While women dominate the general television viewing audience, history skews male and older, though not much older, says Ann Wise, associate research director for Starcom USA. ‘The median age tends to be middle aged, late 40s, early 50s,’ she says, ‘which is not terribly older than for general entertainment.’ He also tends to have a higher income than the average television viewer, and to advertisers’ benefit, the history viewer doesn’t usually stray from the program he’s watching during the commercial breaks.

History’s SVP of development and programming, David McKillop, says the audience for the channel hasn’t changed, though one might think the programming moves there indicate otherwise. Rather, McKillop says History has hung onto its core viewers and with newer, ‘living history’-oriented programs like Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men, has managed to draw in ‘persuadables’ from the sidelines. Current head of UKTV History, Richard Kingsbury, takes a similar view, acknowledging that the changes happening there are the result of an attempt to broaden the audience.

Kingsbury sees the core history viewer split into two different groups. He refers to the first group as the ‘Spitfire Specialists.’ These are the traditional history viewers, people with a deep interest in facts and real information. ‘They’re the kind of people you meet down at the pub and they know everything,’ says Kingsbury. This group is 80% male, fairly evenly spread class-wise and is made up of men who tend to watch TV on their own. For them, details are very important, and World War II programming is the most successful subject to draw their attention. Also, Kingsbury says archive footage works much better than reenactment for this audience because they view it as more authentic.

While the Spitfire Specialist is the traditional, core history viewer, Kingsbury has identified another audience that the channel is also trying to reach. He calls this secondary group ‘The National Trustees.’

‘We’re slightly stereotyping this audience,’ he begins. ‘This is the kind of audience that loves, at the weekend, to go visit fantastic gardens and country houses as a couple or as a family.’ The key difference is that the Trustees tend to watch television together as a family unit and they are wealthier than the Specialists. They are also more inclined to dig into historical dramas, while war programs don’t interest them as much as shows about heritage, programs that weave history into travelogues or natural history. This kind of history audience, says Kingsbury, is more attractive to advertisers than the Specialists because there’s a more even male/female split in this group. They also have more expendable income and for each TV set, the channel gets more than one set of eyes as they are more inclined to watch together than the Specialists.

With these two groups and the even younger audience in mind, UKTV is rebranding its history channel in early 2009. The new channel, to be called Yesterday, aims to create history programs with more relevance to the present in order to draw the Trustee crowd and younger viewers. But Kingsbury, who will head up the channel, says they won’t forget about the core, older viewership. ‘World War II [programming] is very focused on a specific group of older viewers for whom the war was very much part of their childhood,’ he says. ‘As far as Yesterday’s concerned, our World War II content will continue to be a consistent and major strand on the channel; we won’t be leaving that behind.’

Kingsbury also sees the mass popularity in the UK of programs such as Antiques Road Show, which draws up to 11 million viewers for the channel, and sees this kind of program working more for the Trustees than the Specialists. Adam Bullmore, creative director at London-based prodco October Films, sees another UK hit changing the kind of viewers history can draw in. ‘Shows like Who Do You Think You Are have revitalized interest in history by making it very personal, and obviously using celebrities as the gateway into everyone’s past,’ he says. The BBC hit is changing the direction for BBC2′s history programming, where the commissioner of factual output, Martin Davidson, recently announced a move from spotlighting World War II, which has up until now been a large part of the channel’s programming.

While UKTV Yesterday is looking to skew a little younger and more affluent, Canada’s History Television is finding that this audience is coming to them. Forty-seven percent of its audience is 18 to 49, up 36% from 2005. Fifty-three percent of History Television’s audience is aged 25 to 54 and, according to fall 2007 data from BBM, a Canadian audience measuring bureau, history viewers in this age group are 42% more likely than the average TV viewer to plan to buy a new house or condo in the next year, are 28% more likely to plan to upgrade professional skills in the next year and are also more likely to have purchased a laptop, printer, monitor or software in the past year. (Apparently, they’re also 108% more likely to use a pager. Do with that information what you will.)

Kathy Gardner, History Television’s SVP, strategic insights and research, says the channel’s audience has been skewing younger over the past few years, and Peter Williamson, executive producer at Breakthrough Films, sees the change in the channel. ‘They have been working hard to produce programs that are going to appeal to people in their 20s or their 30s,’ says Williamson.

Bill Hunt, vice president of development for Lightworks Producing Group, is not surprised to see the move towards younger audiences at traditional history channels. ‘Every network wants to do this,’ says Hunt. ‘When they’re growing they love their core and once they’ve reached a certain level they’ve maxed out and they know they need to expand that core.’ But the challenge for producers is how to make programming for channels that are looking for younger audiences without alienating the core history viewer. Hunt thinks part of the strategy involves being visually innovative while keeping a solid, historical base to the story. In Lightworks’ Clash of the Cavemen for History, the New York-based producer used two-and-a-half-D rather than 3D animation to create a graphic novel look. ‘I don’t know how many 70-year-olds are familiar with graphic novels, but certainly 30- and 40-year-olds are,’ says Hunt. ‘Whether a 70-year-old knew it was coming from a graphic novel or not didn’t hurt his ability to enjoy the program, but it helped to draw in that younger audience.’

For Kingsbury, the strategy isn’t to create single programs that appeal to each demographic; rather, he feels that as a specialty channel UKTV Yesterday will balance them all. ‘In multichannel people don’t come in for hours and hours,’ he says. ‘I think as long as you have stuff there at different times for different groups you can juggle that.’ While the consensus is that traditional history viewers are drawn to WWII programming, getting that younger viewer is a bit harder. Starcom USA’s Wise says programs about military history, or the history of weapons works for the younger crowd, while Kingsbury suggests spies and conspiracies are popular with these audiences.

So introducing new demographics to the history audience can be done. Ice Road Truckers has successfully drawn in a younger crowd to History, while not alienating the older, core audience. But the most important factor in reaching the history viewer, no matter what age, is providing a lot of detail and information. ‘We know that our audience is enamored with information and facts,’ says McKillop. ‘A lot of times we can tell a producer, ‘Great idea, but we want a deeper dive and more information. Tell us the quirky things about this story that our audience can go away and share with each other.’

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.