“Period Drama” and “Costume Drama” — Quantifying the Difference

By S. Sque, guest author


As the technical director of Period, I thought that I should try to contribute an article with a technical angle, while nevertheless keeping the content on-topic. So, here goes:

To some people, the terms “period drama” and “costume drama” can be used somewhat interchangeably, although every person is likely to have a preference for one term over the other. To other people, each of these terms has its own particular meaning and connotations. Personally, the term “period drama” makes me think of such things as “the Regency period” or “the Georgian period”, while the phrase “costume drama” conjures up images of Roman and Biblical epics, or at least serves as a catch-all term covering all dramatic performances performed in anything other than contemporary clothing. In this article, I attempt to gauge the difference between these two ‘competing’ terms, if indeed that is possible.

Arguably the most easily accessible, and certainly the most pertinent ‘medium’ in which to determine any difference is the Internet, and so what follows represents the results of an entirely online investigation.

Search results

One way of quantifying the difference between “period drama” and “costume drama” is to look at the number of results when querying an Internet search engine for each term. In most of the English-speaking world, Google is the most widely used of the Internet search engines, making it arguably the most important. Note that while is by some metrics the most visited webpage in the world, when it comes to search-engine use, Google is the clear leader.

So let's have a look at how many search results appear when querying Google for certain terms. The number of search results shown below come from searching Google on three separate occasions over the month of January 2009 and taking the average. Note that the searches were performed using quotation marks, to ensure that the results returned contain each exact term, rather than the individual words or variations on them. You can click on each search term to perform exactly the same search now, to see if the numbers have changed.

Search termNumber of results
“period drama”522,000
“period dramas”97,600
“costume drama”305,000
“costume dramas”88,300

For comparison, I also performed the same searches (at the same time) on, although in every case, the number of results returned was either exactly the same as from (at least given Google's use of the word “about” when stating the number of search results) or fell within two percent of it. Therefore, these results are not reported.

First let me make the assumption that one search result corresponds to one webpage, which I think is fair enough. So, we immediately see that there are many times more webpages out there with the phrase “period drama” than with “period dramas”, and the same holds true for “costume drama” and “costume dramas”. It appears then, that when it comes to these terms, webpage owners are discussing the singular or the genre (“period drama” and “costume drama”) much more often than they are writing about the plural (“period dramas” and “costume dramas”). Next we notice that the phrase “period drama” is more than one-and-a-half times more prevalent than the term “costume drama”.

Search volume

The number of search results represents only one half of the story, namely, the ‘supply’ half of the ‘supply and demand’ model as applied to website owners and website visitors. To investigate the ‘demand’ side of things, we need to find out how many people are actually searching for these different terms.

We can make an attempt at this using Google Trends. This service shows you how ‘hot’ any given search term is in terms of the number of people searching for it over time. Clicking on this link will perform the same search as earlier for our four competing phrases, this time on Google Trends.

The results are hard to quantify, but we can look at the little horizontal bar charts on the lower half of the page to get an idea of the search popularity of each term in given geographical regions. The results from the United Kingdom are the most illustrative; it appears that the term “period drama” (singular) is way out in front, with about twice the search volume of the runner-up “period dramas” (plural). Next, with almost the same search volume as “period dramas” comes the singular “costume drama”, and languishing in last place with very little search volume is its plural equivalent “costume dramas”. These results appear to hold true for other regions, such as Australia, Canada, and the United States.

There is another way to measure the search volume of particular terms, and this is by using the Google Keyword Tool, which is provided to help website owners and online advertisers target the hottest keywords being searched for in a particular niche. The tool allows you to see approximately how many people per month search for an exact phrase, averaged over the last 12 months. The results of using the tool in this way with our four competing phrases are shown below:

Exact search termAverage number of
searches per month
period drama1,300
period dramas720
costume drama210
costume dramas320

So, we see that, according to this tool, the most searched-for phrase is “period drama”, while its plural gets about half as many searches per month. With about half as many searches again comes “costume dramas”, followed by “costume drama”. These last results indicating the rank order of “costume drama” and “costume dramas” seem to conflict with the earlier results from Google Trends. However, it should be noted that when such little search volume is combined with the averaging procedure, the numerical results can only be taken so far. Indeed, the Google Keyword Tool indicates that in the single month of December 2008, the order was the other way around in that about 320 people searched for the singular “costume drama”, while there was “Not enough data” to ascertain how many people searched for the plural.


When it comes to activity on the Internet, at least according to the search giant Google, the term “period drama” is many times more popular than its alternative “costume drama”, and in both cases their plural equivalents are less widely used. A discussion of the psychological and linguistic reasons underlying these results is left as an exercise for a less numerically minded author!


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