"I like to call these types of shows `sticky,' since the viewer can easily get hooked into the drama and relevance of it all," says Robert DeBitetto, senior VP-programming at A&E Television Networks, which next month launches its latest investigative reality series, "The First 48."
Combining the appeal of reality, mystery and drama programming into one genre, the newest crop of investigative and behind-the-scenes shows is also a boon to advertisers seeking viewers who are more upscale, and older, than cable's average viewer.
A&E says ratings for "Cold Case Files" among adults 25-54 are up 26% year-to-year, delivering 45% more viewers than A&E's 2004 prime-time average. Coupled with the ratings success of "City Confidential" and "American Justice," A&E has made a big commitment to crime investigation. Such programming also appeals to "our blue-chip, upper-echelon" advertisers, says Mr. DeBitetto.
BOON FOR COURT TV
Attracting tech-tantalized younger viewers to the genre are real-life improvements in forensics and computer technology, say cable network executives. Programs such as Court TV's "Forensic Files" helped the network achieve its best-ever adults 18-49 delivery for the month of April.
The complexity of the programming draws a unique type of viewer, who networks say has higher attention and retention levels than viewers of other cable programming.
Take Discovery Networks' TLC, which this year will run the first of three 1-hour specials titled "The Mummy Detectives." Host Bob Brier will use modern forensic techniques to unearth facts about ancient corpses. TLC says says automobile and luxury hotel brand advertisers have shown interest in the series.
Officially branded as "The Investigation Channel" since last August, Court TV is wooing advertisers with its crime scene programming. Marketers such as KFC Corp. and Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. have also sponsored special vignettes of Court TV's "Saturday Night Solution" block of programming. Novartis Consumer Health's Triaminic is a partner in Court TV's "Mobile Investigation Unit," a forensic science lab visiting 23 cities this summer.
Court TV research shows that its 18-to-49-year-old prime-time viewers have a retention rate of 95% through commercial breaks, which is No. 1 among ad-supported basic cable networks, says Charlie Collier, exec VP-ad sales for the channel, co-owned by Time Warner and Liberty Media Corp.
Court TV is dedicating an unprecedented $200 million over the next two years to its investigative programming slate.
Media buyers seem encouraged by the progress Court TV has made within the genre.
"This is a network that a few years ago was all about courtroom trials," says Brad Adgate, senior VP-director of research for Horizon Media, New York. "They certainly have broadened their programming umbrella."
Both Discovery Networks' Discovery Channel and A&E's History Channel are also active in the genre. Even Discovery Networks' Animal Planet plans to expand on its "Heroes" strand of programming with new episodes of the investigative program "Animal Cops," which will be filmed in metropolitan areas around the country during the next year.
"I feel like it's some of the most engaging television out there," says Doug Craig, VP-programming at Animal Planet. "A viewer can experience anger, redemption, punishment and resolution all in the course of an hour."
A&E is especially optimistic about the June premiere of "The First 48," which will follow real-life homicide investigators as they race against time to solve cases in 48 hours.
Also in development at A&E are "Mr. Justice," in which viewers will follow detective Bill Stanton and his crew on real cases, and "Mindhunter With John Douglas," in which the FBI profiler will relive actual cases involving notorious criminal minds.
While A&E is happy to spotlight its ability to draw middle-age viewers, it will also "continue to develop new shows in this category that have a younger appeal," Mr. DeBitetto says. "We have absolutely no intention to cede 1 inch of this category."
Whether viewers stick around during commercials is harder to prove.
"We are certainly listening to the research these networks provide [regarding viewer retention] and find it valuable," says Sam Armando, VP-director of TV research at Publicis Groupe's Starcom Worldwide, Chicago. "I do think it's time though to take the next step and investigate how we can begin to truly quantify its potential value to our clients."