In cable television, where viewers once cried out for their MTV, they now seem to be clamoring for something a bit different: history.
To the surprise of many executives in the cable industry, and perhaps every teacher who has decried the lack of knowledge of or interest in history among Americans, the History Channel, a 24-hour-a-day service offering documentaries, movies, and mini-series about historical events and figures, has become one of the most remarkable success stories in cable television."Since 1989-1990, there has not been another channel launched with this kind of immediate growth curve," said Thomas S. Rogers, the president of NBC Cable, a member of the executive committee in charge of the History Channel.
How did a channel devoted to a topic that many Americans cringe at recalling from their high school days suddenly become a hot brand? Executives with the channel suggested several reasons, including a growing interest in history as the end of the decade, century and millennium nears.
But they agreed that the explanation for the History Channel's success begins with its association with another channel owned by the same parent consortium, A&E. That channel's ratings have surged recently, along with its reputation among viewers for providing some of the highest quality arts and entertainment programming on cable.
Viewers have put the History Channel at the top of their list of preferences for new channels in surveys for several years. And, Rogers adds: "There is one other fascinating phenomenon, it seems there is a very high correlation of cable operators who were also history majors in college."
So far, the History Channel's viewers are similar to those who support A&E: older, more educated and more affluent than the typical television viewer. Specifically, the channel is strongest among male viewers between 35 and 64. On network television, younger viewers, those between 18 and 49, are often the only ones who seem to count, because advertisers most want to reach them.
One reason why so little programming with a basis in history is done on network television is that network programmers have concluded from past experience that younger viewers simply have no interest in history. ABC learned that lesson with "War and Remembrance," its massive mini-series that delivered disappointing ratings, especially among 18-to-49-year-olds.
Clearly, there have been some historical programs that have fared better - Ken Burns's documentaries on the Civil War and baseball are the notable examples. But those were on public television and historical programs have become increasingly rare on commercial TV.
Unlike the networks, cable television has no problem building channels for viewers over age 30. "Cable operators don't need to only reach viewers between 18 and 49," said Bill Marchetti, an analyst with Paul Kagan Associates, which analyzes the cable industry. "The cable operator doesn't care how old his subscriber is as long as he pays his monthly bill."
All of this has added up to this burst of growth that has quickly pushed the History Channel up toward the elite channels of cable television.
"I don't think it's overstating it to say that the History Channel will be looked back on in a couple of years as among the most successful launches ever for a new cable channel," Rogers said.