Satisfying “Curiosity”

Discovery Channel's long-awaited Curiosity initiative is a multi-pronged, mighty ambitious affair. It incorporates a five-year-long series of 60 original documentaries, a heavy online presence, and a wide range of celebrity hosts, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robin Williams, Morgan Spurlock and Eli Roth.
September 27, 2011

Discovery Channel’s long-awaited Curiosity initiative is a multi-pronged, mighty ambitious affair. It incorporates a five-year-long series of 60 original documentaries, a heavy online presence, and a wide range of celebrity hosts, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robin Williams, Morgan Spurlock and Eli Roth.

The grand idea for Curiosity came all the way from the top, via the founder and chairman of Discovery Communications, John Hendricks. Simon Andreae, senior executive producer for the series, and a senior VP of development and production for Discovery, is one of the key figures tasked with evolving an idea hatched from Hendricks to a five-year, multi-platform project, which fittingly kicked off in August with Stephen Hawking posing the question, “Did God create the universe?”

“Curiosity is John’s favorite word,” says Andreae. “It’s what’s been behind all human progress and, in a sense, what defines us as a species. Three or four years ago, he had the idea of using it as the title for a series which would wrestle with some of the largest questions we as a species face and, in doing so, to tickle, enliven, spark and satisfy this profound human instinct.”

Andreae says the first step in making Hendricks’ vision a reality was to assemble a team to brainstorm potential topics, and to zero in on an approach.

“We knew that if the series was to sustain over at least 60 episodes as planned, then it needed to be very broad – and we also wanted it to embody the very finest production values, to please the eye as well as feed the mind. Eventually, as a guide, we decided to use the phrase ‘eye candy meets mind candy’ to help guide our commissioning and production approach,” he explains.

The Discovery team divided human curiosity into three main categories: curiosity about ourselves, with shows on medicine, psychology and genetics; curiosity about the world, with specials focusing on history, geology and archeology; and curiosity about our universe, with shows tackling physics, astrobiology, space and philosophy.

Once the categories were laid out, the team went to producers with particular titles, approaches and ideas for hosts within each grouping, to ensure a balance of different points of view, says Andreae.

Much like ESPN’s 30 for 30 doc series, to which an array of filmmakers contributed, Curiosity is using a number of production companies, including Base Productions, Left/Right, Gurney Productions, Atlas Media Corp, and more. Some producers came to the network with a great idea, big-name talent, or a unique approach. Some prodcos offered up all three components.

Gurney Productions executive producer Scott Gurney was one of the producers who approached Discovery with a number of ideas. Gurney’s one-hour special, Life on Mike, airs on October 23 and looks at the bacteria living on Dirty Jobs‘ host Mike Rowe, going into microscopic detail to showcase micro-monsters like forehead spiders which, apparently, 50% of the population have.

“We thought it would be a pretty cool concept to take one of Discovery’s hosts who is known for undertaking some of the dirtiest jobs in the world and put all the dirt on him, to make it about him, versus about the other people he visits,” he says. After some discussion, Rowe came on board to undergo endoscopes and more, in the name of satisfying curiosity.

Atlas Media Corp founder Bruce David Klein found himself in a different situation. He was already at work on a special for Discovery when Curiosity was starting to come together, and he wound up tweaking the show a bit to make it fit the bill.

“It became clear in the early days of Curiosity that the way the creative was developing with Alien Invasion: Are We Ready, it would fit really well with the Curiosity brand – this idea of combining super smart provocative ideas with very commercial eye candy.” he says.

The doc’s premise is to depict a simulated alien attack through scientific theories of how such an event would play out if it happened. “We dived into answering questions such as how would they get here, what kind of weapons would they have, [and] could we and how would we fight back,” says Klein.

Being involved in the project has also provided Klein with the opportunity to satiate his own curiosity about aliens.

“Who isn’t curious about aliens?” he asks. “Who has not, on a summer night looking up at the stars, wondered what’s out there, who’s out there, and are they coming for us?”

Once producers were in place, big name hosts were needed, with a preference for individuals with a deep interest or close association with a topic, says Andreae.

Thus, an eclectic collection of well-known names are on board. Besides Stephen Hawking, actor Maggie Gyllenhaal has examined female sexuality in Why Is Sex Fun?, comedian and actor Robin Williams explores the effects of marijuana and cocaine in How Do Drugs Work?, and musician Will.I.Am focuses on robotics and artificial intelligence in Will Robots Take Over? For Alien Invasion, Avatar‘s Michelle Rodriguez served as host.

Andreae says that having a celebrity host attached to every episode brings “personality, charisma, continuity, and buzz.”

Andreae, along with Alan Eyres as executive producer, worked closely with the producers of the Curiosity projects, even more so when the topic was going to be controversial, or in instances where the storytelling technique was more experimental.

One example of the more controversial programs is Left/Right’s How Evil Are You?, in which Hostel director Eli Roth marks the 50th anniversary of the Stanley Milgram Obedience experiments – the social psychology experiments where test subjects believed they were giving out electric shocks – by replicating the experiment for today’s world.

“We’ve collaborated closely on every detail, from planning Roth’s own genetic tests – showing whether he has the ‘evil gene’ – through the protocols and subjects for the experiment itself,” explains Andreae.

Despite the fact that there will be 60 episodes of Curiosity spanning five years, there isn’t a unifying look or feel tying together the films. For Discovery, it is more important that the unique angle and storytelling trope for each film be the most captivating and entertaining for audiences.

Curiosity also has an appropriately ambitious web component, including video interviews with experts, segments from the shows, articles related to the episodes and blogs. Visitors to Curiosity.com can ask almost any question and find answers and points of view from leading experts from around the world.

Beyond the web and the docs, Andreae says that Discovery Retreats are in the works, where individuals can spend days with like-minded individuals and experts on particular topics or interests.

The five-year plan for Curiosity going forward hasn’t been set in stone just yet, but season two is in the works, with Discovery currently shortlisting subjects and approaches.

Andreae says Discovery views the project as “a long-term, 360 degree cultural enhancement brand for America and, we hope, the world.

“It’s great to have a cohesive destination for producers to pitch their best and brightest ‘specials,’ and to signal to the audience that there’s a dedicated time, space and network on which to enjoy them,” he adds.

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.