Discovery Turns 20

In our very first issue, way back in 1997, RealScreen profiled the founder and visionary behind the Discovery name - John Hendricks. At that point, 12 years after its debut, the Discovery Channel had grown from its 1985 launch into 156,000 U.S. homes into a budding global concern available in 110 million households in 145 countries.
June 1, 2005

Billy Campbell


Discovery Networks, u.s.

At the helm of the flagship Discovery brand is Billy Campbell. Campbell’s universe now includes 16 domestic channels, among them TLC, Animal Planet and Discovery Channel.

Campbell boasts a broadcast pedigree that includes incarnations as president of Miramax Television (executive producing initiatives such as Project Greenlight with Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore), EVP of CBS Entertainment, and senior VP of drama development at the WB.

Billy Campbell has been in the TV biz long enough that he can recall the early days of cable when the networks dismissed the second-tier channels as unworthy upstarts. Now, he notes, the networks each have cable arms of their own, and consider them their growth areas.

But the sea change wasn’t always certain. In the days shortly after the broadcasting Big Bang, when the TV universe was still expanding rapidly, dozens, and then hundreds, of channels began flooding viewers’ sets. Choice made viewers fickle. Campbell says the success of cable was realizing, as John Hendricks realized, that well-defined niches would hold viewer interest. Cable nets like Discovery learned to ‘fight fiercely to protect our brands,’ he says.

Concentrating on defined niches gave cable an advantage. ‘Being here, as opposed to being in broadcast, I don’t have to worry about the next sweep period,’ observes Campbell. ‘I’m not saying: ‘Oh my God, it’s May! What is NBC doing next week?’ I don’t care. We program for our audience and for the long term. That’s the flipside of how the broadcasters have to program.’

The launch of Discovery Documentaries demonstrates the advantage of programming for longevity. Formed in 2003, the unit is an engine for driving the brand as a whole. ‘What we have done,’ explains Campbell, ‘is said to producers: ‘We’re going to allow you to do all of the things you want – we’ll fund your passion project if it’s in synch with what we think will work for our audience. We’ll collaborate. We’ll get it theatrically distributed. If we can, we’ll hold it off the market for the nine-month period that allows it to have Academy Award consideration, and then [we'll] have a world premiere on the Discovery Channel.”

While Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s effort for the new arm, screened to some acclaim at Sundance, don’t expect Discovery to throw open the production spigot. ‘It’s not like we’re Paramount and we’re trying to fill a pipeline,’ says Campbell. ‘It’s all about what projects make sense. We have three or four really good ones in development now. I don’t know if they’ll end up being shot. I don’t know if they’ll end up being theatrically distributed, but that’s our goal.’

Campbell believes Discovery will continue to derive its success from John Hendricks’ original positioning. ‘He had a vision,’ explains Campbell, ‘to give documentarians the opportunity to talk about or demonstrate science, exploration, nature… Everyone has curiosity. Our goal has always been to touch your curiosity, if not satisfy it.’

Campbell on cable growth in the U.S.:

The major cable operators are not going to see the same kind of rapid growth they did because we’re now close to being fully distributed. With Discovery Channel being the number-one carried cable network out there, we can now only grow as fast as the population grows. I don’t think we’re going to get much beyond 90% penetration.

On new media:

There is a great opportunity for us on these different platforms. One competitive advantage we have is that our product is platform agnostic. Watching a two-minute segment of Discovery or Animal Planet is every bit, if not more valuable, than two minutes of the broadcasters’ stuff. How do you watch two minutes of CSI?

On advertising dollars:

It’s still not equal in terms of CPMs (cost per thousands) that broadcasters get versus cable… Last year, we saw $700 or $800 million shift out of broadcast and into cable. We’re thinking

it will be about the same, if not a little more, this year… That portends very well, not only for Discovery, but for all of cable.

On sponsorship:

I think it’s a necessity… Advertisers have got to find ways to reach their customers. We have tried to be very collaborative… and organically integrate product into our shows when it makes sense by working with the advertiser – but we are also very focused on the reaction from the consumer.

Dawn McCall

President, Discovery Networks International

Dawn McCall jumped to Discovery from San Francisco’s Weather Channel in 1987, evolving from affiliate sales through management positions at Discovery Networks Latin America/Iberia into her current role as president of DNI.

If you want to peg the time Discovery became a global concern, observes Dawn McCall, it was 1993. Before that, she says, non-terrestrial TV on the international front (outside the U.K.) resembled the landscape in the U.S. the decade before – a nascent market with little capability or demand. But market capacity began to develop rapidly in the mid-’90s, and Discovery realized the window of opportunity could be finite. In 1994, it launched an Asian operation and expanded into Latin America. ‘Our shareholders, and certainly senior management,’ recalls McCall, ‘felt strongly that we needed to move beyond the u.s. And so we got out there with the Discovery brand.’ McCall says the Channel’s catalog was the critical factor, as it allowed expansion without the prohibitive cost of added content.

Now in 160 countries and territories, Discovery has grown well beyond the boundaries of the U.S. market. ‘I think the Discovery Channel really changed the way a lot of people thought about factual programming,’ she notes. ‘In the early days, we were just trying to figure out what that was. As I look back 20 years later, we’ve certainly been very successful in that. But there are many more paths that we have to look at as we continue to develop and evolve each of the brands and factual entertainment as a category.’

Just how much is left to be explored? Lots, says McCall. ‘If you think of us as a content company and not as a series of channels, then there are new platforms we’re looking at and experimenting with. Whether it is mobile phones or broadband… I think we still have a lot of growth left, both in what I would consider the more traditional areas – growing our channels and platforms – but also with these new devices that are being developed and also need content.’

McCall identifies her task as turning DNI into the ‘engine’ of the company. ‘My challenge is: how do I get beyond my organic growth? Quite honestly, I can’t do it with just what I’m doing now. I have to innovate in my business in order to get to that place. I hope in the next 10 to 15 years you’ll see International being a much larger component of Discovery than it is now. I think we will become more of a global company, and that will then allow us to move product around our services and continue to create and innovate content that goes on not just the pay television platform, but all these new platforms which will be much more developed than they are today. It will be a new media world.’

McCall on growing beyond the u.s.:

When they launched, all our networks were money losing operations. As a company, we decided we wanted to invest in our brand and our product and make it global. So we lost a lot of money over a lot of years developing our product and our brand, and moving new channels into the market. But the support has always been there from the shareholders and from Judith McHale and John Hendricks. They were willing to stay the course and have the deep pockets required. Some companies are up to that and others are not, but we felt very strongly that this brand and content were the kinds of products people worldwide are interested in.

On thinking internationally:

We have to think broader about the kinds of programs we produce, commission, buy into and acquire. Unfortunately, I think many people feel that there is the u.s. and then there is international. Well, international is not one country. At the end of the day, no matter if you are sitting in the United States, Germany or Singapore, that program has to connect with the viewer. [If it doesn't], you can program all day long, spend a lot of money, and you are not going to have much of a business.

On pitching for new technology:

We are certainly open to pitches as to how to utilize these new platforms… We are looking for your creativity, because you may be seeing something in our business that maybe we don’t even see. It is important to be pushing our boundaries as to what real world entertainment or what lifestyle programming can be. We really want to be the first stop.

Jane Root

Executive VP and GM, Discovery Channel, U.S.

In June 2004, Jane Root became the executive VP and GM for Discovery Channel U.S., with programming as a significant portion of her mandate. Given Root’s history, it’s hardly surprising. Prior to joining Discovery, she was controller of BBC2. Before that, Root was joint MD of London indie Wall To Wall Television.

Over the length of her career, Jane Root has seen non-fiction mature from a secular genre to its current mass appeal. Today, she observes, viewers demonstrate ‘more willingness to have different kinds of experiences,’ and it is Discovery’s job to provide them.

‘It’s really about how big can you dream,’ says Root. ‘What are the limits of creative capacity? We’re really seeing how big you can go – how daring you can be.’

Root points to Planet Earth as an example of how far the boundaries can be stretched. A BBC copro, the 10 x 1-hour series uses new technology to tell what’s described as the ‘definitive story of the planet.’ Says Root, ‘I thought I’d seen everything that could be done with natural history, until I saw this. Suddenly you realize that technological change has given us a whole new perspective. It is going to completely rewrite the rules about how we make things look.’

Finding new perspectives is one of Root’s biggest challenges. ‘We have to attract the best creative minds of our generation,’ she says, ‘give them the most exciting places to work, fund them properly, and challenge them to do work like they have never done before. We work in an industry that is full of talent, but there’s still never enough to go around.’

Root offers one critical piece of advice for filmmakers pitching her: ‘A lot of people think it’s easy to sell a variance of something we’ve already got. It’s not. The best thing to sell us is something that understands the core DNA of the network but then takes it to another place, finds a new way of talking about it. That’s the exciting thing to us.’

Root on being in the U.S. vs. the U.K.:

In Britain, it’s still possible to get viewers to comparatively complex, difficult pieces of work without having to spend a ton on marketing. The dominance of the BBV and, in its own way, Channel 4 is such that just advertising on their own airways can make a huge impact. The level of noise you have to fight here to get anything watched is extraordinary.

On the prospects for natural history:

I don’t think any genre ever completely goes away. People have to find new ways of telling stories. Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is unlike any natural history film I had seen. It’s got adrenaline and aggression… It is just so questioning and so big compared to the much more classic natural history. I think genres go through a period of great creativity and then they rest for a few years.

On genre bending:

We are getting to a place where we are making far fewer rules for ourselves about what is and isn’t purist documentary. There is a real sense of drawing energy from other places.

On keeping flagship shows vibrant:

We all have to fight really hard to constantly reinvent. When the audience finds something new, they gorge themselves to death with it, but then they want the next meal… [But] it is not about throwing the baby out with the bath water. Discovery has always been good at telling stories. What are the new stories to tell? What are the new ways of telling them? You’re not chucking everything out and starting again, but you’re constantly looking for ways to move to new places.

Don Baer

Senior executive VP for strategy and development,

Discovery Communications

Don Baer turned a distinguished career as a journalist into a role as President Clinton’s director of strategic planning and communications. Since his White House days, Baer has taught at the Kennedy School of Government (at the School of Politics), worked with Steve Brill (founder of Court TV) on the launch of Brill’s Content magazine, and held various consultancy positions.

If there’s one school that teaches you to think big, it’s likely the White House. There, Don Baer mulled media influences on daily life – the perfect prep for his current task, preparing Discovery for a technology driven future where viewers will have more say in how they digest their media content.

Baer says the key to rapid adaptation is positioning. ‘We think of ourselves as being platform neutral,’ he says. ‘Our goal is to translate [our content] into the platforms that provide opportunities for people who can be our viewers – our consumers – to have access to that information.

‘We can’t think of ourselves as being defined by one form of distribution. If we do, we wind up like the old broadcasters who did not recognize the coming change or impact of multi-channel television and were hurt by that.’

Baer believes the most potent weapons in his arsenal are the Discovery brands themselves, which manage to walk the thin line between information and entertainment. That’s an advantage, he says, when it comes to new platforms. ‘One of the things the new media world will be about,’ says Baer, ‘is people seeking information they can use in their lives. They will be drawn to content providers who can present it in a way that is both useful and enjoyable. We think that’s a real sweet spot for us.’

For filmmakers piloting the new world order, Baer advises: ‘Always be thinking about different formats. If you are thinking about a long-form series, consider what the short-form applications might be that can be added on in a cost-efficient way. Be thinking about both the entertainment value and the utility value of different types of content. And by utility, I mean the application in terms of how people seek information that they can apply to their daily lives in a useful way. There are ways to do both at the same time. And obviously, at the end of the day, there is always going to be a premium placed on creativity. Be as creative and open minded and innovative as possible.’

Baer on avoiding blind tech alleys:

First off, you inform yourself. Try to be out there and understand what many different players are trying to do, so that you are not surprised by things to the extent that’s possible. We have conversations with everybody: cable and satellite, consumer electronics manufacturers, telephone companies and broadband players of all different types.

Number two, we listen to our consumers. They will help us understand better what they want to use these opportunities for as new capabilities come online .

Number three, while we want to be participants in this new world, we want to gauge how we participate in a way that is cost effective. There are pilot opportunities – for instance in video search we are doing pilots with Google and Yahoo, and we will probably do others – but we try to limit the terms, and the length of time we are doing it. We try to focus how we participate so we can get the most learning out of the experience.

On platform growth:

In the last 20 years, we have continued to grow in existing platforms while moving assertively into new platforms. I see us continuing to do that right across the board as these new platforms come into play. I don’t think you’re going to see something end as other things come into play. Someone I know talks about there being a ‘Yes, and…’ world, rather than a ‘Yes, but…’ world. I think this is going to be a ‘Yes, and…’ world.

On the future of broadcast:

Television is not going away. If anything, it’s going to become an even stronger force in peoples’ lives. But people are going to have a whole range of ways to take advantage of it, gain access to it, use it, slice it and dice it for their purposes. They are going to have the desire and need for all these various forms and formats… Things that you and I probably cannot even begin to imagine.


1985: Discovery Channel launches June 17 with 156,000 subscribers. The first program telecast is Iceberg Alley

1989: Discovery Channel launches its U.S. educational initiative, Assignment Discovery, a one-hour weekday program for teachers’ use in the classroom. The channel also offers its first original program, Ivory Wars

1991: Acquires The Learning Channel

1996: Animal Planet launches in June. In December, Discovery announces plans for five digital networks: Discovery Science, Discovery Kids, Discovery Civilization, Discovery Wings and Discovery Home & Leisure

1997: Acquires The Travel Channel

1998: Discovery and the BBC form a joint venture

1999: In March, Discovery premieres Cleopatra’s Palace: In Search of a Legend, the first Watch With the World initiative. Discovery Health launches in August

2000: The three-hour special Walking With Dinosaurs sets the all-time cable ratings record

2001: Discovery Channel becomes the world’s most widely distributed television brand

2002: In April, The New York Times Co. and Discovery form a joint venture to launch the Discovery Times Channel. In June, Discovery HD Theater – a 24-hour high-definition channel – launches

2003: Trading Spaces 100 Grand draws more than 9 million viewers, making it the highest- rated show in the history of TLC

2004: Discovery Communications reaches 1 billion cumulative subscribers around the world.Discovery Education, the company’s fourth division, is created. Also, Discovery launches international lifestyle network portfolio Discovery Lifestyle Networks and announces plans to roll out Discovery HD Theater worldwide

2005: Discovery Wings Channel becomes the Military Channel. Discovery Channel celebrates its 20th anniversary

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.