History Springs Into Action

In the niche-driven world of cable, the guy-friendly network strives for growth and consistency

History will not be repeating itself this year.

The cable network, which has increased market share while hanging on to a majority-male viewership, is taking big swings in 2013, as huge ratings surges in 2010 and 2011 have made similar gains much more difficult to attain. A larger percentage of women last year joined roughly the same number of men 25-54; in the fourth quarter, gents in the demo were slightly off. That’s not exactly garment-rending news—top dog USA Network in 2012 was off by double digits across the board—but History is taking steps to maintain not just overall ratings, but its demographic composition.

At the moment, History’s audience is about 67 percent male to 33 percent female, and the population of women is growing. In order to keep its advertisers happy, History must find new ways to attract guys. As such, it’s moving flagship programming to March, well beyond the shadow of the National Football League. The network also faces pressure to refresh its programming a good deal faster than most—you can’t throw a rock on basic cable without hitting a History imitator (truTV has made a cottage industry out of borrowing formats)—so the network is going all-in on scripted projects. (The 10-part miniseries The Bible and the nine-episode series Vikings are both set to drop on March 3.)

And History isn’t the only cabler looking to gain a greater cohort of males. Starz will be rolling out the historical fantasy Da Vinci’s Demons on April 12, immediately following the series finale of Spartacus, while Syfy will bow the hybrid drama series/video game Defiance on the 15th.

Whether any of these players will be able to make a splash with the notoriously elusive demo remains to be seen. “Young men are avid consumers of entertainment,” said Francois Lee, svp at MediaVest Worldwide. “However, they tend to be more screen-neutral than your average audience. In addition to traditional TV, they are streaming entertainment across a variety of platforms, such as online, mobile or through their Xboxes.”

Lee said his take on the demo is “a little more optimistic” than the conventional wisdom that suggests young men are a lost cause. “There are shows that do very well,” he said, before allowing that “it’s always challenging to retain your audience on traditional TV.”

History declined comment, but its upcoming roster speaks volumes. There’s a heavier investment in scripted content, fewer imitable reality shows and more contenders designed to succeed Pawn Stars as the flagship. The latter will be no mean feat. Pawn Stars generally doubles the network’s average delivery of the under-50 set.

Cable networks are like sharks inasmuch as they risk death by drowning if their forward motion is arrested. One big hit can get things rolling, but sustainable growth comes with multiple hits. If History can find an able successor to Pawn Stars and in a different genre, it will leave its competition choking on its wake. But man, that’s a tall order.