has nothing to do with dinosaurs or woolly mammoths. It's a show in which a group of designers and mechanics team up to transform an ordinary car into a working machine — remaking a Chevy Impala into a Zamboni ice-rink smoother, for example.
And it's just the kind of offbeat, quirky original program that Billy Campbell thinks can hoist Discovery Channel's ratings.
Campbell, three months into his tour as president of Discovery Networks U.S., isn't taking credit for Monster Garage,
which debuted as a weekly series last Monday, Sept.
30, posting a 1.1
rating. Discovery Channel general manager Clark Bunting and his team spearheaded the development of the show long before Campbell came on board.
But the series fits in perfectly with Campbell's vision for Discovery Channel, which, as he sees it, still has "an incredible brand," but whose ratings have slipped because the programming grew "stagnant."
"You can't continue to do the same old programming," Campbell said. "There are too many choices. You have to broaden that and broaden what the brand is."
Righting Discovery Channel, the flagship of Discovery Communications Inc.'s 11
domestic networks, is one of Campbell's priorities as he takes the helm of this nonfiction programming fiefdom. His plans include bringing original movies and more offbeat documentary fare to boost the flagship network.
A lift is needed. Discovery Channel's primetime ratings continued to slide in the third quarter, dipping 9 percent to a 1.0, from a 1.1 a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Campbell has other work to do, too. Within a month, he expects to name a replacement for Jana Bennett, who left as TLC's general manager this past spring.
TLC, buoyed by the hit Trading Spaces ,
just enjoyed its best quarter ever, earning a 0.9 in primetime, up 13 percent.
And Campbell has some fires to put out as well, such as getting Travel Channel back on track. Its viewership has been down dramatically since Sept. 11, and in the third quarter, its primetime ratings have dropped 25 percent, to a 0.3.
Campbell is a refugee from Hollywood, a programming veteran of ABC, CBS, Warner Bros. Domestic Television and most recently, Miramax Television. Because of his L.A. pedigree, much has been made of Campbell's plans to bring Hollywood star power — in front of and behind the camera — to sex up not only Discovery Channel, but Travel Channel and other networks in Discovery's portfolio.
Campbell claims that press reports about his looking to bring stars to Discovery have "been overblown." He just wants members of the Hollywood creative community to know that Discovery is interested in working with them, he said.
"Out in L.A., a lot of cable, and certainly Discovery, has blown under the radar a little bit," Campbell said. "People doing films and sitcoms have the ability to do programming for us, but we've never tapped into that resource. We want them to know the doors are open."
The back-and-forth overtures have already started. NBC has contacted Discovery about repurposing some of its shows, as it has done with Court TV's Forensic Files.
CBS has also talked to Discovery about co-branding initiatives involving CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the hit drama Campbell describes as "a complete lift" of Discovery's Tuesday night crime-and-forensics program block.
Discovery also is talking to celebrities with "passion projects" to plug. "Ted Danson is someone who is incredibly passionate about the ocean," Campbell said. "He's actually the head of Oceana, a combination of several ocean and earth-science organizations. We'd love to be in business with him, and I've been talking to his manager about those kinds of things."
Celebrities have worked on projects for Discovery's networks in the past, Campbell noted. Brad Pitt did a special on grizzly bears for Animal Planet, while Julia Roberts hosted Silent Angels, a special on Rett Syndrome, for Discovery Health Channel.
In describing Discovery's future use of name-brand talent, Campbell said: "It will always be organic to what we're trying to do. It's not, 'Let's get a Hollywood person and stick him in one of our shows.' "
Particularly, Campbell said he's looking to use celebrities and personalities to "re-energize" Travel Channel.
The Southern-reared and Harvard University-educated Campbell jokes about being characterized as "a Hollywood guy," pointing out that he doesn't even own any black clothing. Rather, he said, his fashion taste runs to Brooks Brothers.
Nonetheless, his involvement in the development and production of Big Three hit shows such as ER, China Beach
and Everybody Loves Raymond
brings an entirely new perspective, not only to Discovery Channel but to all of the cable networks now under his wing.
Although Campbell said DCI president
Judith McHale and CEO John Hendricks have promised him the resources he needs, there is no question he will have to make do with cable programming budgets that are meager, relative to broadcast.
Earlier this year, Discovery said it would spend $340 million on programming for its networks, up from $310 million a year ago.
At Discovery Channel, Campbell is trying to create more appointment viewing, and Monster Garage
is meant to play a big part in that.
"How lucky to right off the bat come into a place where we've got a hit that we're brewing," Campbell said. "You watch this show, you're mesmerized.
"The reason you're mesmerized is that this is what Discovery is all about, the transformation that occurs, and also the passion. There's also tremendous entertainment in this. … All of my friends from L.A. called and said, 'Tell me about this Monster Garage
thing that you've got going on.' "
Campbell wants to create "Monster Monday" for the network. Monster Garage
would serve as an anchor show, eventually paired with a second show from its producers, Monster House.
Discovery's Tuesday night is already branded with crime and forensics, and eventually Campbell wants to see a third branded evening on Wednesdays.
Broadcasters have taken note of what Discovery is doing, seeing it as potential fare for their lineups as well.
"NBC has contacted us about our shows," Campbell said. "They're looking for the tried-and-true, things that they know have reached an audience. It could be less expensive programming for them.
"Also, you are able again to cut through the clutter. It's like having done a pilot. You can see that that has actually have worked and audiences have reacted to it."
But Campbell said he has his reservations about doing any repurposing deals with broadcasters.
"We have to be very careful," he said. "There are opportunities to absolutely help certain shows. There are opportunities to damage shows.
"The one thing you do have to be careful about is that people do come to our networks … for very specific things. But to say to someone, 'You can get what we do, but you don't have to come to Discovery to get it,' that could be dangerous."
On the plus side, repurposing could give Discovery a way to "cut through the clutter" to promote one of its shows via broadcast.
"It might be an effective marketing tool for us to partner with someone who genuinely is collaborative," Campbell said. "We would be open to that."
Seeking new topics
As for Discovery Channel, Campbell said it will continue to focus on such areas as science and exploration. "But I also think we're going to do a lot of mixing in to make things a lot more accessible and a lot more entertaining for the average viewer," he said.
That means taking on broader topics in its documentaries, and even doing original movies, according to Campbell. For example, he is looking to mimic his Home Box Office Project Greenlight
effort for Discovery Channel, by tracking the creation of a documentary from start to finish.
In addition, Discovery Channel will continue to do specials under the Behind the ...
umbrella, hoping to build on the success of last year's Behind the Terror
"What we're trying to say is that things you might not expect of Discovery Channel in the past, we are very open to now," Campbell said. "If someone came to us and said, 'We have an incredible documentary from some part of the world that is not about dinosaurs'… then we're going to be very open to that."
Discovery Channel is also exploring telepics, which sister service Animal Planet produces quarterly, according to Campbell.
"It could be fiction, a novelization of a real event, or taking a book based on a real event and doing that," he said.
He's less enthusiastic about his networks making forays into fictional programming genres such as sitcoms — a form Animal Planet took on with Beware of Dog,
which has been cancelled. "That's just not who we are," Campbell said. "If an audience is looking for a sitcom, they know exactly where to go. The broadcast networks are going to give you those things every day."
New on the planet
Nonetheless, Campbell has been encouraging his executives to take risks, and he lauded Animal Planet general manager Michael Cascio for doing exactly that with The Pet Psychic.
"That term 'psychic' has a negative connotation in many places, but I think that Michael's done a very good job cultivating Sonya Fitzpatrick, and what that show is," Campbell said. "A lot of people love it, and a lot of people think it's completely ludicrous."
Cascio — speaking last week at a launch party for Animal Planet's new reality series Dog Days —
said the network has several original series pilots on the table, including its first animated series, The Future Is Wild.
Set to premiere in January, it takes place hundreds of years into the future and features new species of animals "morphed" from the animals that exist today.
"Animal Planet is now known as providing innovative programming, so we have to live up to that," Cascio said. "My goal is to come up with different things that people haven't seen before."
Animal Planet will look to offer four to six original movies in 2003, including a sequel to its 2002 telepic Gentle Ben,
Cascio said. He added future movies will tap a wide range of genres, from comedy to drama to fantasy stories to thrillers.
The network has also resurrected the 1960s series Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom
as monthly special, but with a new, more modern look that takes advantage of advances in animal tracking technology and photography.
This past Saturday, Oct. 5, Discovery Kids Channel began programming NBC's Saturday-morning children's block. The stand-alone digital network, Discovery Kids, is now in 22 million homes.
"We are very excited about the future of the kids business," Campbell said. "It an area we absolutely are looking to grow."
Referring to the NBC deal, under which Discovery Kids is creating content for the broadcaster — much of it live-action fare — Campbell said, "This is going to allow us to have much greater impact not only with the brand, but trying different things — and gives us exposure."
Discovery, in tandem with its new partner The New York Times Co., is looking to rebrand and relaunch Discovery Civilization Channel in early 2003, according to Campbell. This spring, NYT invested $100
million for a 50 percent stake in Discovery Civilization, and is working with Discovery to revamp the channel.
"A lot of people have said to me that Discovery Civilization is our version of the History Channel, but we think it's much more than that," Campbell said. "It's not merely history shows. We're really trying, with our access to the Times, to take contextually the things that have happened in the past and explain how they apply to today."
R. Thomas Umstead contributed to this story.