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Indie Nets Find Success Going Against TV’s Grain

Related: As the Bundle Unravels, Relationships Shift Too

Cable news networks weren’t the only services generating big year-to-year ratings gains during the second quarter. A number of independent networks offering a mix of family-friendly entertainment programming posted strong ratings performances in the period.

As top 10-rated networks such as TNT, TBS, ESPN, Discovery Channel and History continue to post double-digit declines in total viewers, independent networks like Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, INSP and UP TV either maintained their audiences or generated significant viewing upticks. Drawing in those eyeballs was family-themed acquired and original programming, targeted to older viewers and slated to counteract the more provocative, youth-targeted content that’s currently in vogue with most cable networks.

“There’s a real longing for the content that we’re putting out — family-friendly, but with an underlying adventure theme,” INSP chief operating officer Dale Ardizzone said. “Our audiences like the sense of fairness and justice that much of our programming features, as well as the integrity and hard-working nature of our characters.”

Indeed, networks like Hallmark Movies & Mysteries and INSP were among the few cable networks to generate double-digit year-to-year ratings gains during the during the period of March 27 to June 25, a span led by news networks Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Hallmark Movies & Mysteries posted a whopping 21% increase during the quarter on the strength of its original movie programming franchises such as Garage Sale Mystery, Aurora Teagarden Mysteries and Fixer Upper Mystery.

Viewers Who Like Linear

INSP—whose family-themed entertainment shows include the nonfiction series State Plate and Handcrafted America, as well as a weekend block of acquired Western movies—grew its total viewers by 27% year-to-year in the second quarter. Ardizzone attributed the increase to INSP’s ability to serve a loyal niche of 25-to-54-year-olds who like linear-entertainment, a group he calls “cord-cuddlers.”

Indeed, viewers age 38 to 70 watch more live and time-shifted television than their younger counterparts, with baby boomers (age 53 to 70) averaging the most hours of viewing at six hours and 42 minutes per day, according to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report for first quarter 2017.

“Baby boomers and Generation X are heavier users of traditional television and radio sources, while younger generations are heavier users of digital platforms,” Nielsen senior VP of audience insights Peter Katsingris said.

Ardizzone said microtargeting that audience with content they can identify with has solidified INSP’s viewership even as younger-skewing channels struggle to find and keep their core viewers.

“When you target a younger audience, it brings in different types of consideration, including what type of content they are looking for, in terms of entertainment, and having to compete with multiple platforms and delivery methods,” Ardizzone said.

“Our audience at our core looks at linear television as the primary source of entertainment, so from our perspective it works great for our ratings,” he said. “It works well with our advertisers and aligns well with our DBS and telco partners.”

Not every independent network offering family-friendly programming is targeting older viewers, however. UP TV offers acquired shows like NBC’s Parenthood, as well as original unscripted shows like Bringing Up Bates and scripted fare like the recently launched dramedy Date My Dad, which appeal to viewers who may find themselves in similar situations with their own families. As a result, the network — which in years past offered older-skewing programming — dropped its average median age from 59 in 2015 to 49 last year.

“Positivity has always been part of our DNA — we take that very seriously,” UP TV executive VP and general manager Amy Winter said. “What we’ve really laser-focused on is this particular life vision.”

Z Living CEO and general manager Rafe Oller also said that networks that offer a distinct value proposition for viewers can help balance out the many disadvantages independent networks face against networks from big media conglomerates. For Z Living, that means offering health-oriented entertainment-based shows such as the unscripted series Yoga Girls, which profiles the lives of instructors working in the competitive West Coast yoga fitness world.

“It’s only a cluttered marketplace if you’re not laser-focused on what differentiates your network,” he said. “There are a lot of options — and most of them are bad — so networks really need to focus on being a clearly defined option that focuses on the right target.”

“There is plenty of room in the ecosystem for all types of programming, and we’re a firm believer that there should be all kinds of content available from different sources,” INSP’s Ardizzone said. “Our viewers are diverse viewers of television — they’ll watch us and they’ll watch other types of programming that are much different from ours, and we’re great with that.”