Discovery: still curious after all these years

On June 17, 1985, John Hendricks' Discovery Channel launched and ushered in a new era in non-fiction television. Twenty-five years later, Discovery Communications is still hungry to innovate, educate and inspire.
May 1, 2010

A quarter of a century ago the somewhat unlikely locale of Landover, Maryland became the headquarters for an evolution in non-fiction television when, with an initial subscriber base of 156,000 U.S. citizens, John Hendricks launched the Discovery Channel.

Twenty-five years later, the Discovery Channel is reaching unseen heights in the U.S., and parent company Discovery Communications, Inc., of which Hendricks is now founder and chairman, is the number one non-fiction media company in the world.

‘It has been quite a journey. I never could have dreamed 25 years ago, when we were just trying to come up with enough money to lease transponder space and fund the payroll, that it would become this – a global, public company with more than 100 networks in over 180 countries,’ says Hendricks.

So how exactly did the company that Hendricks introduced to the world with an episode of Iceberg Alley become a gold standard for documentary TV?

‘At Discovery, no matter what the brand, it always begins with the original vision of our founder and chairman John Hendricks to create great programming that entertains, engages and enlightens,’ says Discovery Communications president and CEO David Zaslav. ‘Regardless of the genre, high-quality content and great storytelling will always find an audience.’

President and general manager of the Discovery Channel, Clark Bunting, concurs. He has been part of the company for the entire ride, getting his start in program acquisitions after answering an ad in the Washington Post.

‘Human beings are innately curious and we love good stories,’ says Bunting, ‘whether [they're] told around a campfire with Australopithecus, or with a 60-inch flat screen today.’

Curiosity and storytelling have been the underpinnings of Discovery’s success since the beginning. You see it in early innovations like the first branded programming stunt on cable, the debut of ‘Shark Week’ in 1988, and genre-defining specials like Planet Earth, the highest-rated natural history series of all time which garnered over 65 million viewers. You still see it in its most recent event programming such as the latest natural history copro with the BBC, Life. The 11-part series was another ratings powerhouse for the company, reaching just under 34 million viewers (P2 + cume) after being simulcast on six other DCI channels, including TLC and Animal Planet.

But the success of Discovery Communications and its flagship channel cannot be reduced to merely catering to the inquisitive. As Hendricks points out, the company has grown to 100-plus networks worldwide, including TLC, Animal Planet and Science Channel, as well as the much anticipated, soon-to-arrive Oprah Winfrey Network. During that expansion Discovery has consistently been a leader in both non-fiction media and cable.

‘Discovery’s success also has been the result of our continued focus on innovation, from the launches of our international business in 1989, the first suite of digital networks in 1996, and the first 24/7 HD network in the U.S. in 2002, to our recent partnership with Sony and IMAX on the first 24/7 3D network,’ says Hendricks.


That focus on innovation stems from an entrepreneurial spirit, which resonates at the core of the company.

Mark Hollinger is a Discovery veteran whose positions within the company have ranged from acting GM of Discovery Channel Asia (in 1994) to chief operating officer for Discovery Communications (from January of 2008 to December of 2009). He is now president and CEO of Discovery Networks International, and figures he was employee number 200 when he joined the company in 1991.

‘It was pretty much a one-channel domestic business when I started there, but you could see the beginnings of something that was going to be bigger,’ says Hollinger. ‘The big events going forward have always been [about] us taking advantage of our content ownership business model to roll out the next generation of products earlier than most.’

Discovery was amongst the first companies to roll out a digital bouquet of channels, which it was able to program relatively easily with the content it already owned. ‘Because we were out early, all of our digital channels are distributed fully and we replicated that internationally,’ explains Hollinger. Today Discovery Communications has over 1.5 billion cumulative subscribers worldwide.

‘It’s hard launching a single new network in this oversaturated universe, and yet Discovery has proven time and time again that it has the magic formula for conceiving, rolling out, and building new networks,’ says Bruce David Klein, president and executive producer of Atlas Media Corp. The New York City-based prodco has produced programs for multiple Discovery Networks, including Dr. G: Medical Examiner for Discovery Health.

‘Even when it doesn’t entirely work out at first, they’re not afraid to cut their losses and try it a different way,’ he says. ‘That’s just great corporate DNA.’

Ultimately, the quality of its content is what has allowed the Discovery brand to penetrate pop culture and become a household name.

Kevin Bennett is the SVP of programming for Discovery Channel and a 14-year veteran of the company. ‘There is an expectation from our viewers with the Discovery Channel that we are always authentic, meaning our programming needs to be real, and it needs to be genuine,’ he offers.

According to Bennett, striving for authenticity is what motivates Discovery to stay ahead of the game when it comes to developing new brands, personalities and even genres. Nowhere is this more evident then in the company’s long history of successful event programming, which has been a staple for Discovery Channel since year two.


In fact Bennett, Bunting, and SVP of development and production for the Discovery Channel, Stephen Reverand, all cited the same two event programs as a tipping point. For all three, Walking with Dinosaurs and Raising the Mammoth, which both aired around the turn of the millennium, showed how big non-fiction TV could be.

Walking with Dinosaurs was a real watershed moment for the Discovery Channel,’ says Bennett. ‘It was one of those game-changing specials that really set the tone for the next 10 years of the network.’

Those next 10 years saw a string of event programs that have redefined natural history programming beginning with BBC/Discovery copro Blue Planet.

‘I think Blue Planet was the first in what I would term the ‘category killers,’ where you look at it and [see that] no one will do oceans like this for at least five years,’ says Bunting. ‘[It was the] same thing with Planet Earth, and the same thing with Life. It can’t be improved upon until there is the next generation in filmmaker technology and storytelling.’

Looking to build on that run of success, Reverand points to a slate of new event programs that are in development at Discovery, including a Planet Earth-style feature of North America and a series titled Human Planet, which will do for Homo sapiens what Life did for monkeys, lizards and wombats. Then there’s the massively ambitious, 60-episode Curiosity: The Questions of Life, personally overseen by Hendricks. The series, expected to run over five years, will air on the flagship channel, with companion content on Science Channel, HD Theater, Planet Green, and Discovery Communications’ international networks.

‘It is very challenging to constantly improve upon what we do. The way we do that is we look for the best filmmakers in the world, wherever they may be, and we match them up with the best subjects in the world,’ says Reverand.


Another staple of both the Discovery Channel’s success, and the successes of other Discovery Communications brands, including TLC and Animal Planet, is brand development and the abundance of recognizable on-air personalities in the programming.

‘Networks in many respects are defined by their talent, and the people who work to represent the brand,’ says Bunting. ‘Our people are passionate about what they do. They are not guns for hire; they would do this whether the cameras were there or not.’

The type of on-air personality that breaks through, according to Bunting, has little to do with what he terms ‘good hair and teeth’ and everything to do with the passion of the individual, and their level of expertise. He cites Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs, the American Chopper crew and early on, The Crocodile Hunter‘s Steve Irwin as examples.

Recently Discovery has generated a lot of buzz by enlisting several high-profile personalities. There is the aforementioned Oprah Winfrey Network, as well as the much-buzzed-about new Sarah Palin vehicle, to air on TLC.

The emphasis on personalities is something Bunting admits is higher than it has ever been. But as Discovery Communications COO Peter Liguori points out, an increased emphasis does not entail a reinvention of the wheel.

‘The most important thing for the portfolio of Discovery Communications’ channels is to make sure that we have distinct channels, distinct voices and distinct personalities,’ says Liguori. ‘So the ability to launch a network with Oprah is one tactic. The ability to attach Sarah Palin onto TLC is another.’

In this sense, cultivating distinct personalities can help define what a particular network is about. For a company that has 28 network entertainment brands, being able to establish the parameters of what does and doesn’t work for each brand is key, says Zaslav.

‘What works for one brand does not necessarily work for the other, so we have to know each brand and audience intimately to discover what makes that brand the best it can be,’ he says. ‘Then, we activate that knowledge with the highest quality and the best storytelling.’


The challenges in developing distinctive networks increase when it’s time to roll them out internationally. Hollinger says the company’s current strategy is taking that into account.

‘We’ve been talking for a year or more about the need to have a second and third strong audience driver in the [international] portfolio in order to grow the ad sales business,’ Hollinger explains. ‘We’ve now made it a priority to get TLC rolled out.’

But unlike the previous international roll-outs of both Discovery and Animal Planet, which relied heavily on the content coming from the U.S., figuring out the editorial mix for the female-skewing TLC internationally will be tricky. In this case, Hollinger fully expects some copro, acquisitions and international commissions to supplement what gets pulled from the U.S. network.

‘There are a lot of conversations that we’re having at markets like MIP to find out what formats we might want to license, or programs to acquire that can help fill out the channel line-up in addition to what we have from the Discovery library and production engine,’ he says.


As Hollinger works on overseeing Discovery’s current international strategy, yet another new chapter in Discovery Communications’ ongoing success story is being written at home. A recent deal with Sony and IMAX has Discovery poised to launch the world’s first 24/7 3D network. It is the latest step forward in a long line of innovations.

‘We are always riding the technological wave, and looking at the best new ways to capture imagery – from the sky, from land, and from beneath the sea,’ says Reverand, who adds that the company always aims ‘to be the leader in employing new technologies for image captures.’

For Liguori, moving into 3D is a natural fit with Discovery. ‘We should be in 3D,’ he says. ‘You want to offer everyone the most immersive experience possible.’

In terms of how successful 3D television will be with audiences, there is a lot of optimism emanating from the corporate offices in Silver Spring. Bunting, for one, is excited about 3D and the way it lends itself to natural history programming. And Reverand expects 3D to play a major role in Discovery’s next generation of event programming.

‘Naturally that means we will move into production of 3D, which we are doing now,’ says Reverand, adding that Discovery is in talks with 3D guru James Cameron.

‘There are many prognostications all over the place,’ admits Liguori. ‘I think with confidence one can say that there will be a technological breakthrough in the not too distant future where all TV will become 3D.’


All of this commotion for a technology that only recently hit stores – and still requires viewers to wear a pair of shades indoors – may seem premature, but this is the same company that launched a digital cable bouquet before digital cable existed. This is the same company that went international only four years after it was founded. And, this is the same company that thought it was a good idea to start a television network in Landover, Maryland. They are entrepreneurs, and they take risks.

‘I have been particularly impressed over the years at how Discovery has maintained a good amount of its entrepreneurial edge even as it’s grown into an international behemoth,’ says Klein.

According to Nielsen Universe Estimates for May 2010, the Discovery Channel is celebrating its silver anniversary by passing the 100- million-subscriber mark in the U.S. The milestone highlights how much Discovery has grown in its first quarter-century.

‘To build a network that reaches over 100-million subscribers here in the U.S., doing it with all original content, and being the first non-fiction network to achieve over 100 million is absolutely important,’ says Bennett.

For Reverand, achieving this milestone also speaks to the evolving dynamic between cable and broadcasters. ‘The gap between broadcasters and cable is shrinking to the point where it is irrelevant. We are in over 100 million homes,’ he says. ‘It gives us that much more horsepower within the marketplace.’

With all the success Discovery Communications has experienced over the years, you might get the sense that there is enormous pressure for the company to live up to its impressive history. Liguori, for one, says he isn’t ‘wearing his flip flops into the office.’

‘The pressure comes from pride. Everyone here wants to honor their predecessor, and I will tell you, everyone here really wants to honor John Hendricks.’

June 17, 1985 – John Hendricks, founder and chairman, launches Discovery Channel with 156,000 subscribers in the United States.

February, 1987 – Discovery Channel airs Russia: Live From the Inside, bringing 66 hours of live Soviet television to U.S. audiences.

July, 1988 – Discovery Channel debuts ‘Shark Week¸’ the first-ever branded programming stunt on cable television.

April, 1989 – Discovery Networks International launches Discovery Channel in the United Kingdom.

May, 1991 – Discovery Communications acquires The Learning Channel (TLC).

January, 1994 – Discovery Channel launches in Asia.

February, 1994 – Discovery Channel launches in Latin America.

June, 1996 – Discovery Communications launches Animal Planet.

August, 1996 – Discovery Communications announces plans to launch five new digital networks: Discovery Science, Discovery Kids, Discovery Civilization, Discovery Home and Leisure and Discovery Wings.

July, 1997 – Animal Planet makes international debut, launching in the Nordic region and Central and Eastern Europe.

December, 1997 – Travel Channel acquired.

March, 1998 – Discovery Communications forms global joint venture with the BBC.

June, 1998 – Discovery en Español launches, making it Discovery Communications’ first Spanish-language channel in the United States.

August, 1999 – Discovery Communications launches Discovery Health Channel.

March, 2000 – Discovery Channel breaks the all-time cable ratings record with the premiere of Raising the Mammoth.

April, 2000 – Discovery Channel’s Walking with Dinosaurs breaks the all-time cable ratings record set by Mammoth.

October, 2001 – Discovery Channel becomes the world’s most widely distributed television brand, surpassing more than 400 million households reached worldwide.

January, 2002Blue Planet: Seas of Life premieres on Discovery Channel.

June, 2002 – Discovery Communications launches Discovery HD Theater, one of the first 24-hour HD channels.

June, 2003 – Silverdocs: The AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival launches in Silver Spring, Maryland.

December, 2003 – FitTV, the first 24-hour fitness network, launches in 40 million homes.

March, 2004 – Discovery Communications reaches one billion cumulative subscribers around the world. Judith McHale, long-time COO, named president and CEO, with John Hendricks remaining chairman of Discovery Communications. Discovery Education launched.

October, 2004 – Discovery launches international lifestyle portfolio Discovery Lifestyle Networks: Discovery Travel & Living, Discovery Home & Health and Discovery Real Time.

December, 2004 – Discovery announces plan to roll out international HD network, Discovery HD, worldwide.

January, 2005 – Discovery Wings Channel transitions to Military Channel.

November, 2006 – David Zaslav, former president of NBC Universal Cable and Domestic TV and New Media Distribution, is named to succeed Judith McHale as president/CEO of Discovery Communications.

May, 2007 – Discovery Channel’s epic 11-episode Planet Earth series becomes cable’s highest-rated natural history program of all time and the most watched cable event of all time attracting more than 65 million viewers.

December, 2007 – Discovery Holding Company and Advance/Newhouse Programming Partnership sign a non-binding letter of intent to combine their stakes in Discovery Communications, creating a new public company. Annual revenue for the Discovery Networks International division surpasses $1 billion for the first time.

January, 2008 – Discovery Times Channel becomes ID: Investigation Discovery. Discovery Communications announces joint venture with Oprah Winfrey and Harpo, Inc., to create OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

June, 2008 – Discovery Home Channel becomes Planet Green, the first 24-hour eco-lifestyle television network reaching 50 million homes.

September, 2008 – Discovery Communications begins trading as a public company on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

January, 2010 – Discovery Communications, Sony Corporation and IMAX announce joint venture to create 24/7 3D network for the U.S.

April, 2010 – Discovery Channel passes 100 million subscriber mark in the U.S., according to Nielsen Universe Estimates for May 2010.

(Source: Discovery Communications)

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.