Marketing & Promotions – The History Channel out to broaden the brand: With other services encroaching on its niche, thc is bumping up its outreach and revamping its programming strategy to bring in viewers from outside its manly …

Time may be on The History Channel's side, but it's in a hurry to grow....
July 1, 1998

Time may be on The History Channel’s side, but it’s in a hurry to grow.

As the year 2,000 grows ever nearer, The History Channel (THC) is attempting to brand itself as the source for American television viewers to make sense of not only the last 100 years or 1,000 years, but of all time. To be that portal to the past, the New York-based channel must continue increasing its distribution, and broaden the definition of its niche programming to reach a larger audience, which doesn’t necessarily include history buffs.

THC launched in January 1995 with one million subscribers, and now stands at just under 50 million; an impressive growth curve in three years, but still well below the 70 million plus households that its sister network, a&e, reaches.

Greater distribution has been reflected in its ratings. April 1998 ratings were up 20% from the same time last year (0.5% Average Audience to 0.6% AA, Nielsen) and network viewership was up 56% (264,000 households, up from 169,000) over the same time period. It’s first quarter 1998 ratings were its best ever (0.7%AA, Nielsen), up 53% in prime time from the first quarter of 1997.

Growing ratings mirror consumer surveys giving the channel excellent grades. THC ranks as the number four television brand and number five media brand in overall quality, according to a recent EquiTrend survey from New Jersey-based Total Research Corporation. For the second year in a row, THC has been the top-ranked ad-supported, mid-sized and emerging channel among men and women, former and non-cable TV subscribers, and internet and dish users, according to the 1998 Beta Research Cable Non-Subscriber Study.

The increased distribution of the channel, its favorable scores among viewers and the rise in ratings means THC has accelerated a drive for more accessible product that reaches beyond its primary demographic, upscale adults 25-64, with a skew toward professional and managerial men.

‘We knew we could attract a core audience with a certain type of programming,’ says Abbe Raven, senior vp, programming. ‘What we have seen is that the audience has grown and interest in history has grown, fueled by the channel itself because people know there is a channel where they can find this kind of documentary programming any time, 24 hours a day.’

As it heads into the 1998-1999 fall season, THC begins its most aggressive slate of original programming. Original production now takes up 75% of the schedule, an 88% increase over the 1997-1998 season, in which original production accounted for 40% of programming. thc launched with 30% original programming in 1995.

THC has worked vigorously to break stereotypical definitions of history (when it launched, some pundits referred to it as ‘The WWII channel.’). Its programming strands include world, U.S., anthropological, military, transportation and social histories. ‘We believe that there’s a history in everything, and that has given us the ability to program everything from the history of ancient Rome to the [upcoming] history of golf,’ says Dan Davids, executive vp and gm.

Just as home videos of History Channel product are often marketed in logical points of distribution (such as The Great Ships at a ship museum), what the channel is doing from a programming standpoint is positioning itself as the logical point of viewing for the history of anything. ‘The challenge is to bring new topics to the channel that may attract people who only have a moderate or passing interest in history,’ Davids says. For example, a train buff may come to the channel to watch Trains Unlimited, even though he may not have any interest in a stripped program about military history.

THC hopes its fall lineup meets this need to be all-encompassing history to everyone, without disappointing hard care history buffs by introducing topics they hope will draw new viewers to the channel. ‘What I’m most pleased with [in the fall schedule] is the comprehensive nature of the channel….that we cover so many different topics and subjects so passionately,’ Raven says.

It will continue to strip series Mondays through Thursdays from 7 p.m. through 11 p.m., adding 20th Century with Mike Wallace to the lineup at 7 p.m., continuing with its signature series, In Search of History at 8 p.m., followed by History Alive at 9 p.m. and moving Modern Marvels to a strip format at 10 p.m. ‘Stripping makes it easier for the audience to find a show,’ Raven says.

Sundays will be turned into a `guy night’ block to counterprogram broadcast networks’ movie-of-the-week blocks. Sundays feature the continuing series, The Great Ships, followed by the new programs, Tales of the Gun, a history of the gun; and Sworn to Secrecy, hosted by Charlton Heston, which examines intelligence operations. The evening concludes with the returning series, History Undercover and True Action Adventures.

Saturdays will feature a new series called Time Machine, a documentary series that will feature shows on topics ranging from the history of toys to the history of gambling.

Because it is a mid-sized network, THC has had to be aggressive and agile with consumer marketing campaigns. thc has taken a two-pronged approach toward building its audience. First, it has used traditional forms of consumer advertising in all mediums, from tv to radio to outdoor to websites. thc tune-in consumer advertising reaches 55% of its subscribers and 17 major U.S. markets.

Its second means of creating exposure stems from branding activities that hammer the idea that The History Channel is the source to turn to for history – all kinds of history. These activities range from sponsorships of major historical events, public service campaigns, strategic alliances, and ancillary business. ‘It’s all of these things tied together that has made us successful in the market,’ Davids says.

The end of the century seems to have stirred a popular interest in history. As the millennium approaches, THC has begun production on what it terms its most ambitious production to date, a 15-part half-hour journey through the 20th century entitled The Century: America’s Time, hosted by anchor Peter Jennings. The series is a coproduction with ABC News. It has also begun production on Timelab 2000, a series of one-minute vignettes that will begin airing this summer, telling little-known stories of history over the last 2,000 years.

‘We’re establishing ourselves as the natural place to go for history,’ Raven says. ‘We don’t like to say that we’re the official channel for the millennium, but rather, the official channel for every millennium.’

THC’s brand-broadening campaign

> ‘From the Archives of The History Channel’: Special one-minute `this day in history’ radio vignettes, distributed to ABC radio affiliates in over 20 major markets, including New York, Chicago and Dallas

> American Park Network: THC advertises in the visitor guide/magazines in 21 national parks (Started in 1996)

> ‘This Date in Baseball History’: THC sponsors this in-game feature at Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets

> THC is title sponsor of the 1998 Great Race, a cross-country vintage car rally

> Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.: THC helps the Girl Scouts develop a community outreach program, Hometown History, in which they can earn a patch by trying to preserve history. Over 200,000 Girl Scouts have participated

> THC maintains strategic alliances, partnerships and conducts community outreach programs for a variety of historical foundations, including the American Association for State and Local History, the Civil War Trust, National History Day, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

> History Channel Traveler creates week-long trips for travelers seeking to combine an interest in history with an upscale vacation, such as a series of Civil War tours called Civil War Alive. A website resource features over 5,000 historic destinations and an online reservation service.

Tours are partnerships with organizations including The Civil War Trust and Mayflower Tours

> Smithsonian Institution: THC is working with the museum to save the Fort McHenry flag that was the inspiration for Francis Scott Key to pen ‘The Star Spangled Banner’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.