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Two Decades of Discovery, and There's Still More to Learn

By Brigid Kelly

From the 2001 BBC Worldwide/Discovery Channel series <em>Blue Planet: Seas of Life</em>.

By Brigid Kelly and Thomas White

When the Discovery Channel first launched in 1985 with 156,000 subscribers, the Cold War was in full bloom, Apple had introduced its first Macintosh just a year earlier, mullets and Madonna dominated pop culture and high-carb diets were in. Twenty years later, the Discovery Network is an empire of 14 channels, including Discovery Channel, that collectively reach 1.2 billion subscribers in 160 countries, and the world is a very different place.

Discovery's story is one of opportunity and good timing. According to Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks, US, John Hendricks' inspiration for starting up the channel "was actually very straightforward and quite wonderfully simple. He loved documentaries and he thought there should be a channel devoted to great documentarians and their visions and their passions. I think then and today his and our mutual goal and mission is to provide the audience, as well as our filmmakers, with a home for great documentary filmmaking."
The process to raise the seed money for the launch took about three years, with funding coming first from Allen and Company, then from a consortium of cable operators that included TCI (now Liberty Media), Cox Communications (now Cox Enterprises), Advance Newhouse and United Cable. On June 17, 1985, Discovery aired Iceberg Alley (Peter d'Entremont, dir./prod./wtr.; Bob Hutt, prod.), a 1980 production from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and National Film Board of Canada.

Subsequent programming included Russia: Live from the Inside (Ken Schaffer and Marina Albee, prods./dirs.), a satellite transmission of Soviet-era television, as the Soviets saw it. The program, which aired in 1987, earned Discovery its first award, an ACE (now CableACE) Award for Cable Excellence. The programming in the early years was all acquisitions, but in 1989 Discovery commissioned its first original program, Ivory Wars (Philip Cayford, dir./prod.), which aired in September of that year.

Also in 1989, Discovery launched Discovery Networks International in the UK, marking the beginning of a worldwide endeavor. "I don't think that John [Hendricks] ever envisioned the company being what it is today," Campbell notes. "He was always excited about content that would be what we refer to as 'platform neutral,' so that it aired on any channel around the world. That's the great thing about exploration and science and nature; it has universal appeal."

To further buttress that international beachhead in the UK, Discovery and the BBC formed a partnership in 1998 to create new programming and cable channels worldwide. "We've always viewed the BBC as a great partner and a great supplier," Campbell asserts. "It was a fantastic opportunity to take someone who supplies us with some of our largest and most spectacular specials every year and create a partnership that allows them to have a great output source and gives us a great input. We're able to go to them and tap into their library and collective array of producers and units that consistently tie into the type of programming that we want to air."

Discovery expanded dramatically in the 1990s, beginning with the acquisitions of The Learning Channel (now TLC) in 1991 and the Travel Channel in 1997 and continuing with the launches of Animal Planet, Discovery Science Channel (now the Science Channel), and Discovery Civilization Channel (now Discovery Times Channel) in 1996, Discovery Health in 1999 and Discovery HD Theater in 2002, among others. With such growth in such a concentrated period of time, one might speculate that Discovery's core mission would be diluted across 14 channels, and that Discovery Channel itself, known for its science and nature programming, might find itself replicated in Animal Planet, TLC or the Science Channel. Those channels, in turn, may find it challenging to maintain their distinct identities while pledging allegiance to the Discovery brand. Yes and no, claims Campbell. " It's always difficult when you have a family of 14 not to either encourage or step on each other's toes a little, but the choices that were made from a managerial point of view in terms of which channels we launched and supported and marketed has made it a challenge that we can handle.

"If you look at most of the channels, they're all very targeted in terms of their programming, content and audience," Campbell continues. "Animal Planet--pretty clear who we're targeting. Travel Channel--pretty clear what the message is. Then we have Discovery Times Channel, which has been a wonderful new addition in terms of current events and historical content programming. The Science Channel, much more in-depth in terms of what science is and can be, is a great sister channel to Discovery."

In concert with this growth, however, independent filmmakers who have produced content for Discovery have noted a considerable change in the working dynamic since the mid-1990s. Barry Clark and Terry Tanner Clark were among the first independent producers to create original programming for the channel. In the nearly '90s the Clarks developed Hunters, a predator/prey series that became one of the most popular programs on the network, and followed that with the highly rated historical series Outlaws and Lawmen. With Discovery still in a start-up mode, working with the network was a pleasure for the Clarks. In return for delivering talented filmmakers and high-quality productions to the network, the Clarks virtually wrote their own contracts, receiving Writers Guild credits on their shows and retaining a high level of creative control over their work.

In the mid-'90s, however, as Discovery's audience and ad revenues rapidly grew, the network began to exert greater control over the producers it hired, demanding all rights to the programs it commissioned, without a commensurate increase in production budgets. For producers like the Clarks, the lure of the network quickly faded--a mindset that spread through the production community over the past five years as cable channels proliferated and, with the pie divided into progressively smaller pieces, program budgets took a nose-dive. Today the Clarks produce little nonfiction television, preferring instead to produce big-budget, high-production films for IMAX theaters and other special venues. "We were glad to work with Discovery in its heyday," Barry Clark says. "But we have far more creative freedom and independence this way."

While some producers are disparaged by the rates Discovery pays for its programming, others understand the drill. According to Gayle Fields, a former producer on six Discovery shows, including Monster Nation, "With DV cameras and cheaper editing systems, it doesn't cost as much to make shows anymore." She adds that funding for the shows depends on what time slot one gets. If you have a daytime slot, there are less advertising dollars coming in so you get less money for your show. If you have a primetime slot, more money is available.

From one producer's point of view, Discovery can be very departmentalized. Fields acknowledges that there's a lot of support staff at Discovery to help producers work through guidelines and an online producer's guide with instantly accessible forms and directions on deliverables, but it's a big corporation and sometimes show strategies change without everybody knowing. "We started assembling our show thinking it was going to be 50 minutes long with very specific timing breaks, and then found out that the clock on the program had been changed--which forced us to re-cut some of our shows," says Fields. While everything turned out well in the end, there was a bit of running around before final delivery. "I'm sure this happens everywhere," she admits. "It's just part of being in the business."

"What we try to do is always have an open dialogue with our partners, our suppliers, and we listen," Campbell maintains. "If in fact there are comments about too much scrutiny or not enough scrutiny or the way the deals are made, we listen and we try to do what's right for Discovery and for our partners. And the most important aspect is that we do provide a forum for them to talk about these things--a space in which we listen to their criticisms, concerns, goals and passions and try to make sure that we're addressing and adapting to what they need. But in the end, we are very open to suggestions. And you know what? We're in business with more producers today than we've ever been in."

As far as budgets are concerned, "We listen to the project and what we think it requires for the producer to deliver on their vision and on our stated goals of what we want to deliver in terms of being at the highest quality provider of our kind of entertainment anywhere in the world," says Campbell. "Like every business, we have models and budgets, but by and large whatever is required to get the show done in the way that it needs and to maintain that quality, we'll pay it."

As the cable and broadcasting industries shore up for the high-definition transformation, Discovery, with the Discovery HD Theater channel leading the way, is well on the road to conversion. But will production budgets increase in keeping with the higher-end HD format? "We try to do as many projects as possible in HD because we're convinced that the world will be watching in HD within the next several years," Campbell asserts. "So when a project comes in, we have a conversation and if it makes sense, we try to shoot it in HD. Today that is slightly more costly, but as technology improves and as these producers understand that it's to their advantage to shoot in HD, those costs are really narrowing."

High definition or not, 14 channels in 160 countries equals hundreds of hours to fill, and that has meant more reality series like Monster Nation and American Chopper, and fewer one-off documentaries. Discovery Times and the theatrical-broadcast hybrid project Discovery Docs seem to be the exception in terms of encouraging distinctive, high-end, high-impact documentaries; Lions Gate Entertainment and Discovery Channel joined forces to produce Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, which will be released theatrically in August and will air in 2006.
When asked about the mix of series and one-offs, Campbell explains, "Our strategy is two-fold: We want to have great series and great signature specials. They need to be ambitious, of pristine quality and adventurous in the way that they're shot and told. In the last couple of years, we've focused a little more on trying to have great series. We've always been known for wonderful, one-off specials; let's also be known for great series that you can come to every week on Discovery, TLC and these channels. I think we've done a very, very nice job in that area. But it's a balance.

"This year, for example, while we've launched Deadliest Catch, which is one of our top-rated series of all time, it's paired during the week with Myth Busters, which is also one of our top-rated shows, and is very scientifically oriented. And those are balanced by Pompei, which did over a three rating, and Super Volcano, which almost did a four rating. We've got The Greatest Americans, we've got James Cameron going down to the Titanic for the last time. So we're in no way staying away from great specials, but there needs to be a balance in today's world, with 150 channels that every home seems to get. You need to have things that people like to make an appointment for, not just a one-off special. We really think it's a great strategy for us to be two-pronged."

As Discovery celebrates its 20th anniversary, the cabler faces a brave new world of challenges and opportunities, with a myriad of options for the end user. "The challenges are always somewhat the same: How do you continue to be fresh and innovative, and how do you reach an audience that has such different choices and opportunities available to them every day?" Campbell notes. "Technology makes those choices and opportunities extremely viable and easy. You can almost watch anything you want, whether it be time-shifted on a TiVo device, video-on-demand or on a computer. How do I take what I think is the best programming and get you to watch it?
"I think the opportunities are that with technology and with high definition, we are able to now show things unlike you've ever seen in the world," he continues. "One of our top priorities is the most unbelievable programming I think I've ever seen, which will air a year from now, called Planet Earth, from the same producer at the BBC, Alastair Fothergill, who did Blue Planet. He's now taking even better technology that allows him to shoot nature and wildlife from over a mile away--from a helicopter--and never ever scare the animals. So you see shots like you're there. We'll platform that as a 10- or 11-hour special. Two years ago when he pitched it, it was just a dream, and technology has come to a place where it creates viewing opportunities that will be absolutely novel for any viewer next year. So I think that we'll continue to expand. That's the exciting part--it's endless and limitless."


Brigid Kelly is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker. Thomas White is editor of Documentary.