How to get viewers to face facts

The US Discovery Channel has defied the cynics with its success. Now it's set for a major tie-up with the BBC.
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In the early 1980s, when the "dumbing down" of Reagan's America was well underway, a young university fundraiser from Alabama refused to accept that US TV had to remain as it was once grimly described by a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission - a vast wasteland.

John Hendricks dared to dream that a sizeable proportion of his compatriots might occasionally want to watch something more demanding than gormless gameshows, mindless talk shows and a never-ending procession of Hollywood movies. Hendricks was even prepared to mortgage his home to have a go at realising his dream.

The bosses at all the big US networks scoffed. Didn't he realise how easily you could go bust by overestimating the intelligence of the American public?

But soon the scoffing stopped. After a shaky start, Hendricks succeeded in establishing America's first cable service devoted exclusively to top- notch documentaries about nature, science and technology, history, human adventure and world exploration.

And the Discovery Channel - now serving 111 million subscribers in 145 countries - is just one element of Discovery Communications Inc, a diverse media company with 2,500 on its payroll. As well as operating a raft of channels both in the US and around the world, it has acquired a significant retail division, including a chain of 110 mall-based Nature stores.

And now Discovery is on the verge of entering into a major, multi-pronged joint venture with the BBC, which could have significant spin-offs for both parties. But the talks have dragged on for almost 18 months. Hendricks and his colleagues are having to play hardball with a public service broadcaster which is increasingly aware of its global commercial worth.

It wasn't always so. When Discovery was starting out, the Beeb practically donated programming to it, charging just $3,000 an hour for lavish natural history programmes by David Attenborough - a mere fraction of the production cost.

"We knew that, until we built our subscriber base, we would have to take advantage of other people's original work and the great libraries were all locked up in public service broadcasters," says Hendricks, who had joined the BBC appreciation society while lining up audio-visual material in the history department at the University of Alabama.

"I felt very fortunate because I knew that, even though some of the programmes were three or four years old, as much as $300,000 an hour had gone into their production."

This was some time before the Birtian revolution began at the BBC and the corporation woke up to its massive commercial sales potential. No one is taking advantage of Auntie now.

In fairness, there was only so much it could charge Discovery in its early days. The channel was initially received by just 156,000 US households.

But its subscription base swiftly expanded. And, when it started to take off, the price demanded by the BBC "began ratcheting up", in the words of Discovery's CEO.

The latest deal may be taking a helluva long time to negotiate, but both the BBC and Discovery feel so confident of an eventual consummation that they have named the envisaged offspring.

Already they are collaborating on a wildlife channel called Animal Planet, which was launched in the US last year and now has 22 million subscribers. And they have just unveiled plans for a second network entitled People & Arts, which will be beamed first to the booming broadcasting market of Latin America and gradually go global.

In addition, Discovery has undertaken to market and distribute two channels in the US on behalf of the corporation: BBC America and BBC World, the first a general entertainment network and the second a round-the-clock news and current affairs service.

"We're probably the ideal partner for the BBC," enthused Hendricks, after a visit last week to Broadcasting House (which is within walking distance of Discovery's swish London branch office). "The BBC is determined not to do anything which might undermine its reputation for independent editorial integrity. We see that as a virtue."

This is not just clever negotiating talk. Far from morphing into an arrogant tycoon, Hendricks comes across as an idealist who genuinely believes that quality broadcasting can make the world a better place.

Raised in Huntsville, Alabama, he sums up his approach, with a barely detectable Southern drawn: "We're using the most powerful form of communication to educate in a kind of entertaining way. So, as well as building a very profitable enterprise, we feel as though we're contributing to society.

"One of the greatest things someone can do is be involved in a successful business which also contributes positively to the advance of society."

Listening to him talk it is easy to see why he has been dubbed "the conscience of cable television". But Hendricks candidly acknowledges that Discovery does operate, to some degree, under the same constraints as other private networks. "We know at Discovery it's very difficult to invest in programming that may endanger our relationship with some of our major advertisers," he admits.

Natural history is no problem: wild animals can be ferocious but they tend to be politically inoffensive. Human history, on the other hand, presents more of a conundrum for a pan-global programmer.

"We have to be aware that the programmes we produce about World War Two will be playing in Japan," says Hendricks. "I'm not saying we don't take on issues, but, in striking a balance, there is a risk that we do programming which lacks an edge."

That's the beauty of the alliance with the BBC for him - it will be less dependent on advertisers. "Public broadcasters should be immune from that sort of pressure," says Hendricks, who says he is highly supportive of America's own Public Broadcasting Service. But PBS has always been heavily dependent on the BBC for quality dramas and documentaries. "It would rather not see this deal [with Discovery] happening," acknowledges Hendricks.

Despite the problems afflicting PBS - its federal subsidy has been reduced by a hostile Congress - Hendricks has a touching faith that the market can produce quality television because the consumer demand for intelligent programming is higher than many cynics believe.

"I never thought of this as a niche market because I never thought of myself as a niche. I just knew there had to be other people like me out there," he says.

"Yes, most of the time most people are in the mood for a movie or a sitcom. But every so often they're in the mood for a documentary, and that's when they zap over to Discovery"n