Upfronts ’15: Discovery, ID look for peak performance from scripted, docs

Discovery Channel is dedicated to drawing female viewers and venturing further into doc and scripted territories, with a doc-based "Elevation Weekend" (pictured) on the slate and major scripted offerings for both Discovery and ID.
March 31, 2015

Discovery Communications is taking significant strides in drawing female viewers as well as venturing into doc and scripted territories, with a documentary-fuelled “Elevation Weekend” set for Discovery Channel as well as scripted offerings at both Discovery and ID, the company revealed at its Upfront presentation in New York today (March 31).

“We recognize what a huge potential scripted can be for us,” Rich Ross, president of Discovery Channel, told a group assembled in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center. “That’s why we’re increasing our investment in scripted television.”

Ross revealed the series Harley-Davidson – the “real life story” behind the iconic brand” – to be the net’s next scripted foray, which he described as “a scripted project that will resonate nationally and globally with universal themes of team work and real drive.”

David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications, later told the room that scripted is an “important part of the recipe” at Discovery, but added that the company will be using a “global lens” when it comes to selecting projects.

“Scripted is quite expensive,” said the exec. “We’ll look to do it in a global way. If we make it so it can work almost anywhere in the world, then it’s a home-run for us.”

In addition to the previously announced acquisition of The Cove director Louie Psihoyos’ documentary Racing Extinction, Ross also unveiled the introduction of “Elevation Weekend” – a weekend of mountain climbing-themed programming that will feature the Sender Films and Big Up Productions-made doc Valley Uprising (pictured), on the evolution of rock climbing in California’s Yosemite Valley.

“For me it was perfect because it had exploration and adventure and the science and technology that allows you to climb differently but at the end of it there’s a history and how, at different times, the culture changed,” Ross told realscreen following the presentation.

Slated to air later this year, the special programming event marks the net’s concerted push into documentary, and will feature a number of films and series that explore the conflicts and obstacles inherent to mountain climbing as well as the histories of expeditions that have informed modern explorations.

Ross also pointed out that his first commission as president is the MAK Pictures-produced Treasure Quest, which follows a team of explorers who set out on a journey to find the lost Incan “Treasure of the Trinity,” and also highlighted the Original Media-made Pacific Warriors, which follows commercial fishermen fishing out of kayaks in Hawaii.

A focus for him, he added, has been drawing female audiences to the net – an objective he has put into action by casting women in many of Discovery Channel’s forthcoming programs.

“For us, in Pacific Warriors, one of our fisher-folk is a woman, and you’ll see that with so many of the shows,” said Ross. “We’ll have a female deckhand on Deadliest Catch for the first time. We have a show coming called Killing Fields where women are part of the cast there.

“I think with most people, you watch more if you see yourself on television so whether it’s Alaska Bush People or any of our shows, if you see women on, women are more likely to watch. That doesn’t mean that men don’t watch in whatever numbers, but it allows [women] to be invited.”

Remaining new series headed to Discovery Channel include the Renegade 83-produced survival series Naked and Afraid XL, a spin-off of the popular series that will feature 12 participants; Pilgrim Studios’ Cuban Chrome, on American vintage cars in Cuba; the Sirens Media-made Killing Fields, about the histories behind remote locations where crimes have occurred; and the previously announced Lunar XPrize from Arrow Media, which follows the titular international space competition that asks contestants to launch and land a robot on the Moon.

Other special programming events include ‘Motor Mondays,’ which will feature such series as Fast N’ Loud and a number of as-yet-unannounced series, as well as the return of ‘Shark Week,’ which will this year debut on July 5.

Over at Investigation Discovery, Henry Schleiff – group president of Investigation Discovery, Destination America, American Heroes Channel, Discovery Life Channel and Discovery Family Channel – discussed the net’s own venture into scripted with the October Films-produced three-parter Serial Thriller, which he said merited a scripted direction.

“We’ve been doing scripted in terms of our recreations for quite some time, so this small step really represents the next logical step,” he said.

When asked whether there may be more scripted in the net’s future, Schleiff said, “Absolutely, as long as the material justifies it.”

“We don’t want to lose our calling card,” he added. “We are reality. We’re reality first. If scripted brings an element of clarification, or raising a level of awareness to a story, we’ll look at doing scripted. But fundamentally, we know what our audience likes and it’s these incredibly grabbing, compelling docu-true stories.”

Highlights from ID’s forthcoming season – which includes 650 hours of original programming – include the Lincoln Square Productions-made American Scandal with Barbara Walters, in which the journalist revisits compelling stories from her career; the series Forbidden Love, on couples who face extreme obstacles to be together; Killer Confessions, which features murderers revealing their criminal acts; and Evil Lives Here, on people who have shared their homes with killers. The roster joins the previously announced Death by Gossip with Wendy Williams and Do Not Disturb: Hotel Horrors.

About The Author
Justin Anderson joined Realscreen as senior staff writer in 2021, reporting and writing stories for the newsletter and magazine. During his 20-year career he’s filled a variety of roles as a writer and editor at a number of media organizations, covering news and current affairs as well as business, tech, the film and music industries and plenty in between. He’s also spent time behind the scenes in television production, having written everything from voiceover scripts for documentaries to marketing copy. He has a degree in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).