NEW YORK — Discovery Networks U.S. last week served up a full plate of new primetime programming alongside the food at its upfront press luncheon at the Rainbow Room.
All told, the channels' 2001-2002 menu includes at least 60 specials, a half-dozen new series and at least 10 returning shows.
A budget of $310 million will be spread across the six networks, funding 3,000 hours of across-the-board programming, said Discovery Networks president Jonathan Rodgers. That's up 12 percent in dollars from last year, but Discovery representatives wouldn't disclose the prior year's outlay. Viewership also is on the rise, executives said.
"Our audiences have grown enormously, doubling in three years," said Discovery Networks executive vice president of ad sales Bill McGowan. Even in tough economic times, the programmers with the strongest brands will continue to grow, McGowan contended.
The various Discovery services — including Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, The Learning Channel, Travel Channel and Discovery Health — accounted for just over 11 percent of cable's 25-to-54 audience, said McGowan. That's compared with 19 percent for the Turner Broadcasting System Inc. stable, 12 percent for USA Networks Inc.'s offerings and 9.8 percent for the MTV Networks family.
If the Hollywood writers and actors make good on their threat to strike, the broadcast networks could invade Discovery's "real-world programming" niche, Rodgers conceded.
"I do fear that," he said.
The flagship Discovery Channel will slate more than 20 new specials next season. They range from the three-hour Walking with Prehistoric Beasts
to four more quarterly Ultimate Guide
specials, the four-hour World Championship Adventure Race
and quarterly two-hour Ocean Earth
picks up where the ratings giant Walking with Dinosaurs
Newly named Discovery executive vice president and general manager Clark Bunting singled out four new entries under Discovery's successful "Expedition America" umbrella: In Search of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Secrets of the Pyramids, On the Trail: The Search for Lewis & Clark
and Viking Voyages.
Animal Planet — which Bunting said is poised to top 70 million subscribers and tallied its highest-ever ratings in 2000's fourth quarter — has five new primetime series on tap. Among them are Vet School Confidential, Hollywood Unleashed
(about celebrities' pets) and The Future Is Wild, which uses computer animation to project how future animals may evolve.
Also on tap are at least five specials, including Meet the Pandas, Animal Planet's first global "Planet-Wide Premiere," due April 22, and Reflections of Eden, a first-quarter 2002 movie about a real-life orangutan conservationist.
The Learning Channel's all-human "Life Unscripted" programming strategy delivered hefty 25-to-54 ratings in the first quarter, said executive vice president and general manager Jana Bennett. The network will try to keep that momentum building with more than 20 specials.
Those offerings include the network's first dramatic telefilm, Trapped at Sea: The Kursk Mystery. It's the story of the recent sinking of the Russian submarine, to air in first-quarter 2002, said Bennett.
TLC's second fact-based dramatic film —Hindenburg
— will air in 2002's third quarter.
Inspired by the ratings success of "techno-competition" Junkyard Wars, TLC has planned a Junkyard Mega-Wars
special for the fall. In a similar vein is Robotica, a six-part series that will culminate with the two-hour Robotica Superbowl
in the first quarter.
Travel Channel will slate Travel on the Edge, a new anthology series, for the third quarter, said Discovery Networks Content Group president John Ford. Travel also has 10 specials on tap.
Discovery's co-owned diginet, BBC America, touted ratings gains among adults 25 to 54. Chief operating officer Paul Lee also predicted that distribution would grow from 21 million homes at present to 27 million by spring 2002.
Four BBC dramas, two comedies and two films will make their U.S. debuts on the channel this season. Specials will include a David Bowie concert.
Discovery Health Channel will offer a slate that's 80 percent original for 2001-2002 mainly targeting women 25 to 54 with 10 specials and series.