Upfronts ’13: Discovery nets balance live, scripted programming

Discovery Communication's cable networks touted high-profile live events and - for the first time - scripted fare, in addition to the usual mix of competition formats, reality shows and docu-soaps, at the firm's 2013/14 Upfront presentation in New York.
April 5, 2013

Discovery Communication’s cable networks touted high-profile live events and – for the first time – scripted fare, in addition to the usual mix of competition formats, reality shows and docu-soaps, at the firm’s 2013/14 Upfront presentation in New York City.

Evolving trends in cable network programming can lead to some odd juxtapositions. Academy Award-winning actors find themselves bumping up against reality stars on the schedule – and on stage.

It was a contrast some of these unlikely bedfellows seemed to relish during U.S. cable giant Discovery Communications’ 2013/14 Upfront presentation at New York’s Jazz in Lincoln Center on Thursday (April 4).

“Where else can you be on a stage with Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey and Honey Boo Boo?” multi-hypenate filmmaker Tyler Perry asked the crowd.

He could have said La Toya Jackson, William Hurt, Jerry Springer, Mariel Hemingway and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon instead. All made appearances on stage to tout their respective programs to a crowd of 2,000 media buyers, advertisers and members of the press.

The annual event opened with professional risk-taker Nik Wallenda walking a tightrope over the auditorium (pictured above) while plugging Wallenda Live, a live-to-air Discovery Channel special in which he will traverse the Grand Canyon on a hire wire without using a tether on June 23.

Non-fiction and reality programming comprise the bulk of the content that airs on flagship network Discovery Channel and sister nets Science Channel, Investigation Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, OWN: the Oprah Winfrey Network, The Military Channel, Destination America and Velocity.

This year, a few networks touted high-profile live events and, for the first time, added scripted fare into the mix of competition formats, reality comedies and docu-soaps.

Discovery Channel is in production on Klondike, a mini-series based on the Charlotte Gray book Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike starring Sam Shepard, Abbie Cornish and Richard Madden, who introduced the show in a pre-taped video from the set it Calgary, Alberta.

In November, Science Channel will also premiere its first scripted feature, 73 Seconds: The Challenger Investigation, starring William Hurt. A coproduction with British pubcaster the BBC, the film recounts physicist Richard Feynman’s investigation into the cause of the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986. (The Oscar-winning actor will also narrate a companion documentary, The Genius of Richard Feynman.)

Science’s general manager, Debbie Myers, sees scripted drama such as 73 Seconds as another means to grow the network’s subscriber base, which she says will reach 80 million by the year’s end.

“If it is successful, we’re going to look to do one to two scripted dramas a year,” she told realscreen. “Factual programming is our bread and butter, but if a drama can bring people to Science to see all the non-fiction stuff that we’re doing, then that is the strategy we’re going to take.”

Other notable programs on Science’s slate include new series’ The Moaning of Life, a docu-series in which British comedian Karl Pilkington (An Idiot Abroad) explores the ramifications of middle age; This Changes Everything, a factual series about the possible implications of current emerging technologies starring actor James Woods; and the fifth season of Through The Wormhole, a documentary series hosted by Morgan Freeman who was the second Oscar-winning actor repping a series at the upfronts on behalf of Science.

The network is also planning live, worldwide coverage of a super comet that is due to pass by earth in November and shine brighter than the moon.

“‘Live’ does huge numbers for us but it’s got to be the right event,” says Myers, adding that there is a renewed interest among viewers in space thanks to major news events such as last August’s Mars rover landing which the network also covered live.

“There is a new race for space: asteroids, meteorites are in the news,” she continues. “We’re living in a renaissance of people really investing – in the private and public sector – in the space race.”

Also in the live event realm, Discovery Channel will air the special Fast N’ Live, in which Fast N’ Loud stars Richard Rawlings and Aaron Kaufman will turn derelict vehicles into souped up rides; and Animal Planet has launched Animal Planet L!VE, a digital online streaming service offering 24/7 live cams of sloths, belugas, kittens, ants penguins and more.

Investigation Discovery upped the camp quotient during the upfronts with a reality soap opera send-up called Degenerate Hospital, starring network president and general manager Henry Schlieff and a pneumatic nurse.

The mystery and suspense network said it has cracked the top 10 cable networks five years after its launch, and boasts an audience that skews female by 65%. This year, execs have ordered 15 new series and 22 returning series.

The programming is a mix of personality-led news magazines such as Deadline: Crime with Tamron Hall and Surviving Evil, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Charisma Carpenter, and “guilty pleasure” true crime series with titles like Elder Skelter, Evil In Law and Wives With Knives.

The network also greenlit Tabloid, a series about supermarket tabloid fodder starring daytime talk show king Jerry Springer.

“We’ve effectively seen the demise of daytime soaps and so we have had tremendous success, because most of our stories are real-life soap operas,” Schleiff explained in an interview with realscreen following the Upfront presentation.

“We thought we would move the dial even more by tapping into the quintessential king of ‘over-the-top’ daytime television, Jerry Springer.”

However, Schleiff’s added that ID’s push for crazier, Springer-style storytelling is not coming at the expense of the network’s traditional journalistic fare, such as news magazine On The Case with Paula Zahn or docu-series such as the Werner Herzog-directed On Death Row.

“If you recall my last sentence in my Upfront, I said, ‘we continue to do films that inform and inspire’ – that was a direct reference to our desire to continue to working with directors like Werner,” Schleiff explained. “We also just had a meeting with Errol Morris. We’re working with virtually every major documentarian.”

Zahn, a newscaster who has worked for ABC, CBS and CNN, is preparing to shoot her 100th episode of On The Case for ID. “When Discovery greenlit my series, I never imagined that the network would get the traction that it’s gotten,” she says. “Not because I didn’t believe what they were doing, but it’s very hard to build a network from scratch.”

When the series premiered in 2009, her team would scan law journals and local newspapers for story ideas. Now, she says the show is well-known enough that district attorneys, forensic scientists and FBI profilers are coming to her with potential cases.

“When we built the show we were able to hire a lot of very experienced broadcast network talents and over the last five years we have grown that staff,” she says. “What I’m particularly proud of is we’ve gotten to the point now where we no longer have to rely on the very typical sources we did when we first started the show. I think that improves the quality of the journalism.”

In contrast to ID’s relatively quick success, lifestyle net OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network has struggled to grow its viewership. Since it launched two years ago, the Queen of Daytime Talk’s cable net has experienced a high executive turnover, disappointing ratings and subsequent negative press.

However, the situation began to turnaround last fall after Winfrey landed newsworthy interviews with celebs such as disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, pop star Rihanna, late night host David Letterman and Whitney Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina for her series Oprah’s Next Chapter.

OWN can now boast 13 consecutive months of year-over-year gains in key demos.

“Last year I was standing here and I was telling you that I was in the climb of my life,” Winfrey told the audience. “The truth is I was, but by the fall, we made the pivot.”

After talking up OWN’s social media metrics, Winfrey relied on starpower to sell OWN’s upcoming slate. She brought out comedian Kim Whitely, star of the reality sitcom Raising Whitley; “the Scarlett O’ Hara of the Jackson Family” La Toya Jackson, star of Life with La Toya; Mariel Hemingway, the focus of director Barbara Kopple’s doc Running From Crazy; and Tyler Perry, who is producing the one-hour drama The Haves and the Have Nots and half-hour comedy series Love Thy Neighbor.

Never one to let a good against-all-odds story go, Winfrey also debuted a video in which Perry’s Madea character bumps into her Sofia character from The Color Purple on a country road.

“All my life I had to fight. I had to fight the press folks. I had to fight the ratings. I had to fight them haters. Girl child, it ain’t safe in a world of cable channels,” Sofia tells Madea in the clip.

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.