Report for MIP-TV – Discovery: Success with nautical disaster

Discovery's All-Time Best...
April 1, 1998

Discovery’s All-Time Best

(Show Title/Prodco/Slot/Length/Audience*/Rating/Share)

1. Titanic: Anatomy of Disaster/Stardust Visual/Sunday 9:00 p.m./120/3.20/4.5/6.9

2. Carrier: ‘Fortress at Sea’/Sean Gallagher/Sunday 9:00 p.m./120 2.86/4.02/6.2

3. Raging Planet: ‘Tornado’/Pioneer Productions/Sunday 9:00 p.m./60/2.85/4.01/6.4

4. Raging Planet: ‘Hurricane’ Pioneer /Sunday 10:00 p.m./60/2.56/3.6/6.0

5. Normandy – The Great Crusade/Monday 9:00 p.m./120/2.51/3.53/5.8

6. Wolves At Our Door/Ketchum Productions/Monday 8:00 p.m./60/2.49/3.5 /5.0

7. Galapagos – Beyond Darwin/DCI/Sunday 9:00 p.m./120 2.29/3.22/5.3

8. Search Adventure: ‘Operation Shark Attack’/Sunday 10:00 p.m./60/2.28/3.2/5.5

9. Submarines-Sharks of Steel: ‘Submariners’/Sunday 8:00 p.m./60/2.27/3.19/5.0

10. Submarine-S. of S.: ‘In the Belly of the Beast’/Sunday 10:00 p.m./60 2.26/3.10/4.6

Share and rating numbers have been provided by Discovery U.S. *Audience numbers are listed in the millions, and are inferred by RealScreen from rating numbers provided by Discovery. Audience numbers are intended only for comparison.

Anything but disastrous, Discovery’s Titanic: Anatomy of a Disaster reached a record 3.2 million viewers last April, the highest audience reach the cablecaster has ever achieved in the u.s. Narrated by Martin Sheen, it was more than star power that catapulted dci’s exploration of the long-lost ship to the top.

Produced by Pittsburgh’s Stardust Visual and The Discovery Channel, Anatomy of a Disaster was much more than just another two-and-a-half-mile underwater trek to gawk at the rusting ruins on the floor of the Atlantic. The key, according to Robert Wise, senior vp, operations and administration, and deputy to the president of Discovery Networks, u.s., was the way Discovery and co-executive producer Gregory Andorfer (Emmy Award winner for Planet Earth, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos) chose to cover the month-long exploration, rumored to cost us$3 million.

‘What we wanted to do was find a programming angle that was consistent with what a viewer might expect from the Discovery Channel, but would be different from what has been previously produced and aired, because there is a plethora of Titanic titles out there. What we latched onto was the notion of doing a scientific investigation of the wreck,’ explains Wise.

‘The way I have always done a science documentary,’ says Andorfer, ‘is to go talk to the experts. You don’t know what you don’t know until you talk to someone who does.’

After seeing every film and reading as much as he could about the ship, Andorfer assembled a team of scientists who would be able to approach the wreck as more than an underwater crash site. Included were metallurgists, microbial biologists, naval architects (including representatives from Harland and Wolff, the Titanic’s builders) and marine forensics teams.

The production also relied heavily on new exploration and imaging technology, such as an advanced ‘side scan’ sonar system that could cut through deep layers of silt and produce never-before-seen images of the wreck.

The new approach revealed some startling discoveries which helped gain notoriety for the expedition. The tear that sank the ship, thought to be as long as 300 feet, was only about 12 square-feet in total. Tests showed that the brittle steel used to construct the ship meant her break-up began on the surface, a theory previously proposed, but unfounded until then.

The 1996 exploration of the Titanic site became three separate shows for the Discovery Channel. The first, Titanic: The Investigation Begins, a one-hour teaser which aired in October, 1996, was produced only weeks after the expedition ended. This initial hour set the scene for Titanic: Anatomy of a Disaster, which aired the following April and broke Discovery’s previous ratings record. Titanic: Untold Stories, the one-hour eyewitness perspective that wrapped up the investigation, aired last December.

Anatomy of a Disaster was expected to do well, but numbers surpassed projections. At one point during the broadcast, Anatomy of a Disaster received a 5.0 rating. It also quadrupled the average primetime rating among males, 25-54, and adults, 25-54. Part of its success can be found in the fact that it appealed to more than just the ‘boys and their toys’ crowd to whom Discovery is often said to cater. ‘The Titanic story itself is something that is interesting to people,’ observes Wise.

‘Whether you’re young or old, male or female, it’s something that people just can’t get enough of… . We usually skew male during primetime, but we were trying to sell adults, not just males. We have to make sure there is enough content that it will appeal to everyone.’

As Andorfer points out: ‘Science is a great way to tell stories, as long as you tell people how you know what you know, so you can involve them in the process.’

The landmark expedition also produced press independent of the Discovery broadcast, which helped build the audience. William Broad, a science writer involved in the month-long investigation, did an article on the new discoveries in Science Times just prior to the April screening. The coverage turned the science behind the voyage into a major news story upon which Discovery could build advertising campaigns.

While James Cameron’s drama has created billion-dollar Titanic-mania, Wise points out that Anatomy aired far enough in advance that the Cameron film didn’t have much of an effect on the ratings for the first two shows. Untold Stories, the final show, did manage to get in on the Cameron hype. Discovery did a tie-in with Paramount, making a ten-minute loop available to theaters and providing press material enthusing the Discovery broadcasts.

The Sunday night slot in which Anatomy aired is also a natural winner for Discovery, claiming eight out of the ten highest-rated shows in the broadcaster’s history. Being on Sunday night, the slot naturally claims a larger-than-average viewing universe and a family audience predisposed to dci’s type of programming.

Discovery is also careful not to run its flagship shows against network blockbusters or during sweeps week. ‘You have to be fast, and look for your opportunities when they arrive,’ explains Wise. ‘It’s like being a mammal in the age of dinosaurs.’

Discovery reserves the 9-11 p.m. slot for specials, around which it tends to concentrate the lion’s share of its promotional efforts. For Anatomy, on-air promos, as well as radio campaigns and print ads were used to heighten viewer interest.

Guide to Frontrunners:

-Ratings & Overview

-Raging Success on Channel 4

-TVO: Size doesn’t matter (market, that is)

-Canal+Non-fiction hits home first

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.