Discovery Canada welcomes unique pitches – leave the reality at the door

Ken McDonald, the VP of programming for Discovery Canada, breaks down what the network is looking for.
September 11, 2008

Ken McDonald, the VP of programming for Discovery Canada, breaks down what the network is looking for.

What is the channel’s programming strategy?
Our schedule is pretty diverse. There’s everything from the ever durable Daily Planet, which is approaching its 3,000th episode this season to our newest show Cash Cab (pictured), which actually premiered [last night]. Our strength is really in the diversity of our programming, [but] there is a common denominator. The success of those shows is in the storytelling. Its accessible, its compelling, its smart and it’s got a pay off. That’s the prism we filter our commissioning and acquisition decisions through because it works for us.

What is the balance between acquisitions and commissions?
By virtue of our conditions of license we have a fairly heavy commissioning load, so at any time over the year we’re carrying 150 to 200 hours that we’ve got on our slate in various stages of preproduction and production. We also get some key programming obviously from Discovery US, shows like MythBusters and Dirty Jobs. Really our story is the strength of the Canadian commission programs which on many nights, particularly in the past two or three years, are drawing the highest ratings in prime time. We’re quite proud of that fact, because that’s not the Canadian television model, as we all know. We’ve seen the most ratings growth in our big Canadian shows like Canada’s Worst Driver, Canada’s Worst Handyman, How It’s Made, Mayday and Forensic Factor.

What would be your advice to producers pitching?
Watch the channel, first of all. Don’t bring us traditional nature and science documentaries being told in a traditional linear documentary way. As soon as someone watches the channel they’ll see what I’m talking about.
We’re not looking for derivative stuff. We have several shows that are very successful and every year we certainly get a lot of pitches for shows that are very similar to those ones and invariably we end up rejecting them because the success of our program is diversity. I would say fresh ideas and fresh approaches to storytelling.
Giving an example of that is Proper Television and Bird Plane Productions’The Real Superhumans – which, if I can boast for a moment, won the Banff award for Best Canadian Program this year – if you look at that, it could’ve been a very traditional linear documentary. What made it successful and compelling was the way the story was told. There was a comic book motif. The stories of the individuals at the center of the documentary were intercut and the pace was very important to its success. We commissioned that.

Do you welcome international pitches?
Oh sure. We do a ton of international co-production as well, because we do a ton of commissioning.

What are the trends you’re noticing from pitches?
For awhile there we were seeing an awful lot of reality stuff and while some of our programming has a reality feel to it, we’re certainly not in the market for big reality shows. We’re starting to see a lot more unique pitches coming forward. We’re also interested in both the smart series ideas but we’re also interested in the major one-offs as well.

Any challenges for the network?
We’re the number one non-sports Canadian specialty channel in the key demos. The challenge for us is to keep that audience base that we have and build upon it, and continue to show that you can be a factual channel and be successful without running a lot of scripted drama or movies.

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.