Science Nets’ Ratings Quest

Apr 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

With a new batch of information-based documentary programming queued up, National Geographic Channel has joined with Discovery Network in a race back to Discovery’s roots.

As 5-year-old National Geographic Channel’s ratings and subscriber levels continue to climb, the network’s executives have ordered a handful of new science-oriented reality shows to bolster their slate of nonfiction documentary programming.

The new shows are a mix of short-order series on the inner workings of the modern world and special-effects-heavy historical documentaries. Among the new projects are “Earth: The Biography,” a five-episode, special-effects-assisted look at how the Earth was born and functions, and “Ultimate Factories,” a six-episode series on the inner workings of manufacturing plants.

“We’re really branching out in the science genre and trying to find every which way to find the science in a story,” said Heather Moran, VP of programming and development for Nat Geo.

Like many of Nat Geo’s offerings, the shows target the information-based nonfiction documentary genre. Nat Geo, jointly owned by National Geographic Television & Film and Fox Cable Networks, has focused on the genre partly because as similarly branded rival Discovery Channel has found success with docu-reality shows in recent years, Nat Geo executives saw the genre as underserved.

Discovery Networks-owned Discovery, on the other hand, has stated it is also seeking more traditional documentary programming in an effort to return to its roots.

Though Nat Geo’s ratings are still a modest fraction of Discovery’s, in the past three years the upstart channel has made continuous gains, thanks to high-profile specials such as “Breaking Da Vinci’s Code” and “Inside 9/11.”

Viewership Rising

In 2004 National Geographic Channel’s total prime-time viewership was about 15 percent of Discovery’s (11 percent among 18 to 49). Last year that number jumped to 27 percent among total viewers (22 percent among 18 to 49). So far this year-despite Discovery’s 9 percent increase in total viewers-Nat Geo has maintained its 27 percent take among total viewers (and increased to 24 percent among 18 to 49).

“For our first 2%BD; years we had the fastest-growing distribution of any network; for the last 2%BD; years, we had the fastest ratings growth of any network,” said Russell Howard, VP of communications for the network.

Still, analysts noted Discovery is comfortably leading the space.

“Nat Geo is getting a lot of increase in their ratings because their subscribers are still growing, whereas Discovery has been as saturated as you can get,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media. “Discovery’s programming has been, for better or worse, a victim of their self-cannibalizations, with all their spinoffs.”

Discovery is in 90 million homes compared with Nat Geo’s 58 million. In addition to helping propel previous ratings growth, the current subscriber discrepancy also means Nat Geo can expect to continue to gain on Discovery’s viewership-at least in the short term.

David Leavy, senior VP of corporate affairs for Discovery, said comparing the two networks is like comparing “apples to peanuts,” despite their similar brands. “They have 58 million; we have 90 million with 14 networks-[Nat Geo] is not a comparable asset to Discovery,” he said.