Programming Profile: Discovery commissions from tapirs in London to Tallinn’s Bomb Squad

The U.K. networks' recent heads-of-factual-programming shuffle has left many projects in limbo. However, factual soap seems to be weathering the change afoot in the non-fiction circles of Brit-casting, and has taken ground in Scandinavia with Animal Planet Europe....
December 1, 1997

The U.K. networks’ recent heads-of-factual-programming shuffle has left many projects in limbo. However, factual soap seems to be weathering the change afoot in the non-fiction circles of Brit-casting, and has taken ground in Scandinavia with Animal Planet Europe.

The very young service – launched this summer in Scandinavia and imminently in the U.K. (date unannounced at press time) – is principally acquisition-driven with commissioning just begun. Its first original title out of the gate is Zoo Story, a documentary soap about the London Zoo, shot and edited on the premises, starring its inmates. The cast includes a tapir with stomach ulcers, a lonely potto (who has just been given a new mate), a nervous camel (Nora) and a macaque with toothache.

The production company, Television Trust for the Environment, is actually based in the zoo, and the 13 x 30 minutes is cut in the small mammals house (next door to the Dormouse Breeding Experiment). The budget is less than £9,000 per episode, and, according to Chris Haws, vp for commissions, coproductions and productions for Discovery Networks Europe, the series may roll on for another 13 episodes or more.

At about 60% non-fiction to 40% fiction, the European Animal Planet has a slightly higher factual-to-drama programming ratio than the U.S. service. Geared to family viewing, all programs must contain animals as the name suggests. Acquired shows include the likes of Toronto-based Paragon Entertainment’s childrens nature show Kratt’s Creatures.

As for Animal Planet’s commissioning stipend range, Haws says, ‘It’s so new there isn’t really a standard yet.’

Animal Planet Europe is continuing to look for stripped reality (Haws says they have a few good ideas kicking around) and maintains an appetite for animal/human interaction stories. One-off strands are Animal Champions and Animal Classics.


In terms of other opportunities with Discovery Networks Europe, Discovery Channel Europe (DSCE) is beefing up its exploration and adventure stock. Haws pegs it as an area of DSCE’s core programming – alongside natural history and wildlife, history and archaeology – of which it is seeking more. Haws recently commissioned Trailblazers (working title), 13 x 1 hours of adventure programs from Santa Monica-based Trans Atlantic, set to air in spring ’98. Favored formats are trilogies (3 x 60) which gravitate to the Sunday night Discovery Showcase slot, and single-subject series (5-7 x 60 or 13 x 30).

Discovery Channel Europe is a cable and satellite service which transmits to Great Britain, Ireland, Benelux, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, with a separate transponder delivering to Italy and South Africa. As to commissioning rates, Kim Peat, deputy commissioning editor for Discovery Networks Europe pegs Discovery Home and Leisure (daytime u.k. transmission only) in the region of £4,500 per half hour. ‘Often we fully fund at this rate – in runs which are never less than 15 programs – sometimes we coproduce,’ says Peat.

Commissioning for Discovery (4p.m.-2a.m., Europe-wide transmission) is in the region of £25,000 per hour. ‘Again, we fully fund at this rate, or coproduce. Sometimes, where necessary, the rate can be higher – especially if we are the sole funder – sometimes lower, in particular where we are a coproduction partner.’

As a side note, most of dsce’s science and technology programming comes from colleagues in the U.S., and Haws notes being particularly impressed with the dramatic reenactment work of David Lint coming out of Toronto-based Cinenova Productions.

The 16 separate Discovery nets around the world share a core of programming, about 50-60%. Outside the U.S., Discovery Europe is ‘far and away the most active in local programming,’ according to Haws. Discovery Channel Europe, Discovery Home and Leisure, and Animal Planet Europe generate about 250 hours of original programming – about 80 hours of which would originate from dsce, and about one quarter of that would end up being picked up by the U.S. service.

Haws does a lot of coproduction with Discovery’s U.S. nets, and last year participated in the first non-U.S. Discovery copro, The Professionals, their high-profile one-off series done with Discovery Canada. Now in mid-run in its third season, The Professionals ‘may be redefined slightly,’ says Haws. ‘It does well for us and we’re getting super stories from people.’ However, while it is still current, Haws does say the network is looking to bring on a new strand: ‘There’s a few ideas we’re playing around with at the moment.’ The Professionals focuses on people in ‘unusual, exciting, glamorous or hazardous occupations,’ and Haws says if it is replaced, it would likely be with another one-off strand. ‘I would be very unhappy to imagine a time where we didn’t have somewhere to put the excellent single documentaries that people come to us with.’ Haws is in talks with Discovery Canada about more projects, probably series given the amount of administration required.

As for working with broadcasters outside the family, zdf is the biggest partner, with ABC Australia, La Cinquième and all the other usual factual suspects active collaborators. Haws looks for partners with no footprint problems, or tries to establish a fair windowing structure. ‘The documentary community is actually quite small around the world. There’s not a long list of those interested in what we want.’ The main coproduction partner in England is itv’s individual regional outlets.

As to the nature of Discovery’s relationship with Channel 4 (which most notably experienced the broom syndrome), ‘The general sense is that Michael [Jackson, new C4 chief exec] is happy to be open to proposals coming from us,’ says Haws. ‘It may be the case that Channel 4 may be more open than they used to be, we’ll have to see.’ C4 recently announced that it would look at revising its deal structure to allow indies to retain rights when they contribute a portion of the budget.


Discovery is supporting new directors by commissioning six docs from South African directors under the South African New Visions umbrella. Following this are a number of possibilities for other new director initiatives. ‘We also have a commitment to foster talent in Europe,’ says Haws, and Eastern Europe New Visions is one idea being considered. Eastern European filmmakers are struggling to find footing in the international market after the collapse of the state-controlled, fully-funded film studios.

Two films in The Professionals series are from the Baltic region, and Haws just picked up Discovery’s first film from an Estonian producer: Bomb Squad directed by Rein Kotov of Allfilm. The First Freedom production, made in association with The Baltic Media Center of Denmark and Estonia’s Allfilm, looks at Tallinn’s under-equipped and under-staffed incendiary-device defusement team Which battles the Russian Mafia, and deals with the mine and bomb leftovers courtesy of withdrawing Soviet troops. The forty-plus calls handled a year by the team offer mega drama, such as cameras capturing Estonian Police bomb-squad disposal-unit member Arne Lokk removing a bomb from an urban residential area by picking it up and driving it to the countryside for detonation. Tragically, another bomb exploded which claimed Lokk’s hands and eyesight a few days later. Bomb Squad will also air on Estonian national tv. Graham Addicott is exec producer for First Freedom and Peat is executive producer of The Professionals.

Haws, who spends a fair bit of time flitting about Europe trying to convince filmmakers to approach Discovery with their best ideas, also has a few projects cooking with Icelandic producers.

Citing the commissioning editors with like-minded missions – turning up exciting projects with vision and voices from off the beaten path – Haws points to tvo’s Rudy Buttignol (with whom Haws is sharing Icelandic interest), Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s Dione Gilmour, and Michael Stedman, managing director TVNZ Natural History.

While Haws says Discovery Channel Europe will ‘almost certainly’ be increasing the number of hours it broadcasts, there is no guesstimate as to when that will transpire, as it is due to circumstances – such as capacity – out of the nets control.

Also see:
More on Britain: Picture This makes room for experimentation

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.