In 1996, Discovery Networks confirmed that digital was the wave of the future when it launched four diginets. Managed as one entity, with a skeletal staff, the channels (Home & Leisure, Science, Civilization and Kids, and – in 1998 – Wings and Español) were sold as a package to subscribers to entice viewers to check out all of them, and to sell the digital platform. Now, with the digital/analog divide inching toward obsolescence, programming execs at DCI have become anxious to unbundle the brands. According to Vivian Schiller, senior VP & GM of Discovery Times Channel, ‘It was always the plan to break each of them out, create distinct identities.’
To bolster these efforts, last October Discovery announced plans to increase the program and marketing budgets for all of the brands. Exec shuffling landed Dan Salerno as VP of programming for Wings, Home and Español, and Matt Palmer as VP, strategic marketing for The Science Channel.
Discovery Times Channel (DTC), which Schiller refers to as the canary in the coalmine, received its cash infusion a year earlier than its sister channels. DTC, arguably the most visible of the digis, evolved from Discovery Civilization. After The New York Times entered into a joint-venture deal with Discovery in April 2002, the challenge became to relaunch and rebrand Discovery Civilization as The Discovery Times Channel.
Schiller, former head of long-form programming at CNN, was brought on board to define the channel and make it stand out. ‘I was very happy at CNN, but [with DTC], here’s a network where the entire mission is docs.’
One of Discovery Times’ main aims is to provide context to the news of the day. ‘We made a decision that we weren’t going to enter the fray and create another 24-hour news network,’ Schiller explains.
That meant the schedule would consist mostly of long-form programming. ‘We want to capture the spirit of the New York Times by carving out the position that while the news networks are covering the breaking news, we’re telling you the beginning of the story. Not just what’s happening today, but how did we get there?’
To that end, the sked is full of one-hour specials, like Reporters At War, a four-parter that aired last month. With the war in Iraq as context, Reporters examined the history of war reporting from the perspectives of U.S. and U.K. journalists.
‘Our year one strategy was primarily big, high-impact specials,’ says Schiller. ‘We’re going to continue to do those, but you will begin to see series emerge in year two.’
One series recently added to the sked is World Wire. The hour-long weekly anthology series slots internationally-sourced docs on world society, politics and culture. The series bowed last October with The Hajj: Journey of a Lifetime, a two-hour special on Muslims who make the pilgrimage to Mecca. The wide-ranging and format-accomodating slot has also aired Ikea Mania, a one-hour doc about the Swedish furniture giant’s global aspirations, and Age of Terror, a three-part series on terrorism.
Schiller says that alongside the search for series, the network will continue to commission one-offs, acquire and enter into coproductions. One recent copro is Word Wars, a feature-length doc about the cutthroat world of Scrabble tournaments that competed at Sundance this year. Udy Epstein of L.A.-based Seventh Art Releasing was executive producer for the film and worked closely with the other exec producer, Schiller. Excited about the film’s prospects and the working relationship with DTC, Epstein comments: ‘This is a partnership that’s going to last.’ A sentiment that bodes well for other indies.