For the past decade, the Discovery Channel has wallowed in cheap reality fare. Now, the network promises a return to its origins.
It was about ten years ago that a fantastic nature documentary captured the nation’s attention. The documentary was Planet Earth, and it featured expert camera work of sweeping vistas, slow-motion shark attacks, and a mind-expanding view of some of nature’s most obscure processes. It seemed like the program was on everywhere: your parent’s house, bars, in the background at parties. Dane Cook made jokes about it. It won awards. Then it disappeared…but what no one recognized at the time was that the network that produced it, The Discovery Channel, would follow it into the abyss.
Not to say that Discovery Channel hasn’t done well financially in many of the years since – waste management pays, after all. After the success of its award-winning documentary series, Discovery’s executives took stock of their vast empire, including networks TLC and Animal Planet, and decided that they’d had enough of producing nature documentaries narrated by British people. Instead, they maneuvered into reality fare. For the last 10 years, TLC – hilariously an acronym for “The Learning Channel” – has mass produced shows like Sister Wives, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, and the much lampooned Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Even Discovery itself has fed at the trough, producing cheaply marketable shows like 19 Kids and Counting, Shark Week, and River Monsters. According to Discovery head David Zaslav: “When people go to TLC to get nourished, there’s a certain kind of content they’re looking for.” Thanks, Dave.
The short-term gains of this strategy were real; but thanks to the cord-cutting frenzy in recent years – brought on by people’s ability to finally avoid bundled channels they don’t want by viewing online – Discovery is beginning to about-face. “One day we just came in and looked at each other and said, ‘You know, no more bearded guys in the kitchen with f—ing pigs running through the living room,’” says Zaslav, who is currently the highest paid CEO in the US.
As aggressively as they moved into the trash heap, Discovery is looking to get out of it, already picking up a noteworthy documentary, Racing Extinction, and leaving the brand’s acquisition strategy in the hand of John Hoffman, an HBO alum known for rigorous documentaries. The move could not come at a better time — not only for Discovery Channel, which is staring down the barrel at losing most of its customer base to online viewership, but also for the audience, which has sorely missed quality documentary programming in the years since Planet Earth.
It will take time to see if Discovery can carve out a lifeboat from the sinking cable company ship, but it’s about time that they decided to try. Like the History Channel, which has moved into more quality scripted fare as a means of avoiding a dark fate, Discovery’s move to finally embrace what its brand is all about is welcome and needed. Planet Earth was a phenomenon when it was released, and thanks to cord-cutting, true follow-ups to it can finally be hoped for.