When John Hendricks launched Discovery Channel in 1985, he wanted to chronicle the world as no one had ever done for television.
Eighteen years later, he's doing it all over again — this time in high-definition format.
While movies and sports share the initial HDTV limelight, Discovery Networks U.S.'s documentaries on nature, culture and the animal kingdom are tailor made for HDTV viewing.
To that end, spurred by Hendricks's vision, the network has embarked on a five-year, $65-million odyssey to create 30, two-hour HDTV documentaries on regions and countries around the world.
"Discovery HD Theater is your window on the world," said Hendricks, the founder, chairman and CEO of Discovery Communications Inc.
The network's HD bet is in sync with Hendricks's view of evolving consumer behavior. "We can continue to make bets that consumers will migrate towards platforms that allow them better picture quality and more control over their television watching," he said.Initial planning is underway for the first HDTV documentary, focused on India and set to premiere in 2004. Examinations of the United Kingdom/Scotland, France, Egypt and other regions of Africa are on tap.
The project aspires to be the definitive HD video record of the world's people and places, and will stand as the centerpiece for Discovery HD Theater, now offered by a number of MSOs, including Cox Communications Inc. and Charter Communications Inc.
"We're very close with a number of distributors," HD Theater senior vice president and general manager Clint Stinchcomb said. "Movies, sports and Discovery: that's the type of content that is bettered suited for HD. Discovery HD Theater is a great complement there."
Discovery is offering HD Theater as a $4.95 standalone offering, and as part of an HDTV tier many MSOs seem interested in fashioning.
The network already has already shot 100 hours of programming in HD, and plans call for 400 hours in the library by year-end, Stinchcomb said.
"We've been trying to future-proof our productions for several years," said Discovery Channel senior vice president of production Steve Burns.
The original movie Leopard Son
and the documentary James Cameron's Expedition: Bismarck
were shot in HD, said Burns. Other documentaries shot in film can also be converted to HD.
"We have specials from the space station that were done in HDTV," he said, and network's the new NASA project, Deep Impact, is also being filmed in the format.
The HD production fever has spread to the series side. TLC's Trading Spaces
and Discovery Channel's Monster Garage
and Surprise By Design
are being produced in HD.
In May, HD premieres include Jeff Corwin: Kenya, Secrets of Glacier National Park; Extreme Machines: Oil Rig; and three Baby Human
"Viewers will be pleasantly surprised from time to time" when they find episodes of their favorite programs showing up on HD, Hendricks said.
The 30 two-hour specials, dubbed "HD Atlas," are also being produced under Burns's leadership.
"It will be the definitive visual record of the countries of the world in this time and place," he said. "Each will have signature graphics and cover the topics of geography, landscape, culture and history."
Two staples of Discovery programming — the pristine landscapes that still exist on Earth, plus the small worlds of an animal's habitat — will come alive through HD, Burns said.
"The resolution allows you to see in greater clarity the sweeping landscape to small creatures," he said. "It immerses you inside the image. You have the feeling you are right there. It's ideal for Discovery in many ways."
Stinchcomb is banking on that consumer experience to help drive Discovery's HD efforts with cable operators, in specific, and HD in general.
"There are roughly four million homes that have HD sets and maybe 10 million to 15 million sets have HD availability from their cable or DBS provider," he said. "You have a gap between TV sets with and without decoders, but that gap will decrease rapidly for a number of reasons.
"These are terrific customers for DBS and cable. They buy lots of video service, pay bills on time, invite friends over to show off their TV. We're in the beginning stages of a dogfight between cable and DBS," said Stinchcomb, who has inked a deal with EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network satellite platform, in addition to several cable deals. "HD is the new battleground for consumers."
What Cox is doing
Cox, a longtime investor in Discovery, has rolled out HD Theater at various pricing models. In some of the nine Cox Discovery HD markets, the channel is sold within the high-definition service tier. In other systems, Discovery retails for $4.99 to $6.99 per month.
Discovery HD Home Theater will launch in Charter markets as they launch HD service, Stinchcomb said. A number of small and midsized cable systems have also launched Discovery HD, he said.
Stinchcomb believes cable operators can charge extra for HD for a variety of reasons. First, cable has historically sold consumers on the concept of better pictures, whether that means clearer off-air signals or digital video. HD is the next logical step in that direction.
"Therein lies the beauty of HD," he said. "Cable is great at selling picture quality. And people love the HD content, and they are willing to pay extra for it."
"We are the beneficiary of a visionary CEO in John Hendricks," Stinchcomb said. "He had his eye on HD for the last seven to eight years. Because of that, we built up an HD library of content."