The Root of the matter

On following trends
April 1, 2007

On following trends

What we’re trying to do is not do any one thing to the exclusion of everything else. [There's] kind of a crack-cocaine approach to television, where you get one thing and it’s like ‘Right, that’s it. We’ve got the holy grail. Let’s fill the schedule.’ I think you’re really going to get into trouble. What you have to do is just say ‘That’s fantastic, we’ll have some of that, and it will be a part of what we do, but it’s not going to be everything.’ The dirtiest job [I had to do when I came over] was probably digging our way out of having cars and bike programs on almost every single night of the week. That was the hardest thing. You just can’t let that happen to a network.

On overexposure

It’s about variety. Discovery’s audience wants to come all the time, they want to turn on a lot of times in a week. They don’t want to see the same program all the time. The structure I like the most is where you have a great show, you repeat it while it’s on and then you put it in a cupboard with a sign that says ‘Do not open except in an emergency.’ That’s what we do with Deadliest Catch, which is a fantastic documentary series, but we absolutely say we are not going to take it out of its box for nine months.

Best programming decision

I think probably going with Werner Herzog for Grizzly Man. That felt like a real big risk. Werner is not someone you’d normally associate with Discovery. I kept saying to people ‘Have you ever seen any of his films?’ If they kind of nodded I think that just meant they hadn’t. I think that sense of uniting natural history with a filmmaker of Werner’s caliber is an extraordinary thing to do. He’s off in Antarctica making a film for us at the moment. He had to have his appendix removed and all this dental work done, because they don’t let people go to Antarctica if they could possibly be a health risk, and he’s there for three months making a film.

Worst programming decision

That’s a really easy one. Bringing a series called Greatest American, which was a huge hit in Britain, to America. In Britain, it was like a phenomenon. David Beckham in an interview spontaneously started talking about how he was going to vote. Tony Blair started talking about it in Parliament. Everyone was discussing it, and I thought that was great. They did it in lots of other countries in the world, and I thought it should come to America. Nobody watched it. The programming wasn’t right, it was hideous. It really was a uniquely hideous thing. But it was very good for me – it actually taught me that just because it’s in other places in the world, doesn’t mean it’s going to do well in America.

On taking risks

I’m a mad risk taker. I believe that you always follow hunches – things don’t always start out strong, they grow. Often shows reach their peak in their third or fourth series. Look at Mythbusters. We were actually discussing whether it had reached its peak, and then suddenly everyone delved deep and found a whole new audience for it. I think things can grow and grow. To me it’s not about raw ratings, it’s about: did this touch something with the audience? Is there an emotional or intellectual chord that feels like it’s hitting home? In all these jobs, I think you follow your hunches, at least I do, and you say ‘I think there’s something there.’ And sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong. If it was a mathematical equation on whether to recommission or not, it would be a lot easier. We wouldn’t agonize over it so much. I’m an agonizer.

Into the future

We’re going in a different direction: we’re getting younger, getting more educated, and we’re getting bigger. We had 16% growth last year. And January, the month where all the car and bike shows moved to TLC, we were all [terrified], but it’s been great so far. So we’re actually getting younger, but we’re not obsessively in pursuit of a younger demographic. Now we can do shows like Future Weapons and Stunt Junkies, for which the average age is really, really young. But that gives a great foundation as part of a portfolio of shows on the network.

I have a sort of theory that knowledge is changing. We’re in a great moment. When I grew up, I was one of the geeky girls in the back of the class who thought knowledge was fun, and we were kind of weirdos. We weren’t normal. But now I think the geeks in the back of the class are tomorrow’s billionaires.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.