Discovery had started hanging around with the wrong crowd. It had gotten addicted to a genre of programming -- "tattoo TV" people called it -- that favored bikers over bug life, and the ratings magic those shows initially brought had expired.
A crab-fishing reality hit
Now, 2006 is looking up: Ratings are beginning to climb back, with total viewers up 13% year-to-date and up 4.3% in the 18-to-49 demo. In addition, on-air programming feels smarter, a little more like lessons learned in a cool science class, and is peppered with shows like survival drama "I Shouldn't Be Alive," the urban-legend-debunking "Mythbusters" and bona fide crab-fishing reality hit "Deadliest Catch."
In a poll Discovery conducted in April and again in September, 41% of viewers said they watched the channel more than they had two years ago, citing the new shows as their biggest reason for tuning in. But it's through expensive, high-profile programming specials that Discovery executives will show how committed they are to turning the brand back into a premium property.
Throughout October Discovery will debut the first installments of an ambitious $65 million, five-year project to film the world in high definition. "Discovery Atlas" is the brainchild of the network's founder, John Hendricks, and will be aired in 170 countries. Last month Ted Koppel made his debut on the network with an investigative look at the safety of the country. And in the first quarter of 2007, Discovery will launch "Planet Earth," a project so ambitious that network sales executives made it the upfront hype two years ago.
"They're making a concerted effort to get back to what made them successful in the first place," said Guy Rancourt, VP-associate media director, Hill Holiday, Boston. "Everyone's chasing sensationalist programming, and I think it's a good thing they're going back to their roots. It's a nice safe environment for our advertisers."
Specials not so special
But ratings for the specials haven't necessarily beaten the network's averages. Ted Koppel's first special, "The Price of Security," which aired Sept. 10, drew 1.03 million prime-time viewers -- 20% off the network's average summer rating. And "Atlas: China" premiered to 1.2 million viewers two Sundays ago, about 5% below the network's average Sunday night rating.
Jane Root, exec VP-general manager of Discovery, Military, Science and Discovery Times channels, insists the specials' value is not determined solely by their ratings. "They're about showing how deep you can go with a brand," she said. And she defended the response to "Atlas." "We're extremely proud of the response it's gotten, with tremendous critical acclaim throughout the world. Advertisers are queuing up to be associated with it."
Diversified distribution plan
While linear ratings are as important as ever, a project like "Atlas" has a diversified distribution plan and revenue streams. It will be distributed on both Blu-Ray and HD DVD and on iTunes, Amazon and cable VOD. Discovery created a mobile website for the show and developed podcasts that correspond to the countries featured, starting with China, Italy, Brazil and Australia. The network is also using the programming in its education service, Cosmeo.
Many of the extensions are ad-sponsored -- American Express, for example, sponsored the website, offering exclusive content to cardholders. The distribution philosophy is "more holistic," said Andrew Snyder, VP-new media sales at Discovery. "We create a multitude of ways people can enjoy the programming."
Not long ago many media watchers said Discovery had ceded its style of programming -- a high-tech exploration of natural history -- to competitors, most notably the fast-growing National Geographic Channel, which is in about 61 million homes.