Ian Burrell: If the Discovery Channel buys Channel 5, it could transform the British television market

 

In an orange party dress and with not a hair out of place, Oprah Winfrey came clapping and jumping on to the stage at the Jazz at Lincoln Centre auditorium in New York on Thursday as the final act of a television industry event which rivalled the shows on nearby Broadway.

She summoned the singer Toni Braxton from the wings to talk about her lead part in My Name is Love, the new musical drama on OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) and unveiled an epic religious series for next year called Belief, which the First Lady of American media said was "the reason I put my name on the channel".

But it wasn't Oprah's gig and she was preceded on stage by a succession of other big names, from film director Ron Howard to comedian Roseanne Barr. This was "Keep On Discovering", the 2014 edition of the annual "Upfront" presentation by Discovery Communications, when the biggest pay-TV programme provider in the world sets out its stall to its advertisers.

I was sitting about 10 rows from the stage. Discovery is seen as the front-runner among potential buyers of Channel 5, for which Richard Desmond is asking £700m. If it were to complete such an acquisition, it would undoubtedly be in a position to transform the terrestrial TV market in the UK and offer a formidable challenge to the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

Not everything in the Discovery show reel has obvious public-service quality; Deep Fried Masters is a celebration of fatty food which cocks a snook at the obesity crisis, while another show about loggers carries the battle cry: "Out of those woods there's money to be made". But Discovery does champion science programming, it has campaigned to end whaling, and it has deployed basketball star Yao Ming to front a project to save the rhino.

The president and chief executive for the past seven years, David Zaslav, is a remarkable character who hosts "Upfront" by appearing in a series of filmed clips alongside his head of advertising, theatrically discussing the company's growth on camera in a downtown cafe as if they were part of the acting talent. There's a level of confidence you just don't see in British TV. And when Oprah takes her bow she gives "David" a name check.

OWN is one of 14 Discovery channels in the US. In the UK, its shows are broadcast via Sky and Virgin Media on the women's network TLC, one of Discovery's most important brands.

It is 25 years since it launched its international business, arriving in British homes with the onset of satellite TV and expanding to a global reach of up to 2.5 billion subscribers in 220 territories. Owned by media magnate John Malone, Discovery has been pouring money into acquisitions – from Nordic broadcaster SBS to French-based Eurosport – and ambitious content.

It wants more of the "event television" embodied by Nik Wallenda's Skywire tightrope crossing of the Grand Canyon last year. With Wallenda dressed in a Discovery T-shirt and insisting on no ties or safety net, the live event – filmed by multiple cameras and trending worldwide on Twitter – had the capacity for personal tragedy and corporate disaster. Wallenda – whose grandfather died on the high wire – appeared at Thursday's "Upfront" to announce that his next trick would be Skyscraper Live, a journey between the highest towers of Chicago, the notoriously Windy City.

Nik Wallenda walks without any harnesses or any safety precautions on a tightrope stretched across the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon on 23 June 2013 Nik Wallenda (look closely) walks without any harnesses or any safety precautions on a tightrope stretched across the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon on 23 June 2013

In terms of derring-do, he faces competition from other Discovery presenters. Joby Ogwyn will next month attempt to be the first man to base-jump from the summit of Everest, descending 10,000 feet at a rate of 150mph in a wing suit. I assume that Discovery executives have not scanned YouTube for the British Pathé footage of pioneer skydiver Franz Reichelt, who fatally plummeted from the Eiffel Tower in 1912 in his own prototype wing suit. He left such a crater in the ground that bystanders measured its depth with a ruler.

Discovery relentlessly seeks to broaden its reach. As the pay-TV platforms on which its channels sit in the UK reach only 56 per cent of homes, big events are important. "It's hard," says Susanna Dinnage, Discovery's UK head. "You have to be bold, your ideas have to be bigger and you have to be first."

One of Discovery's biggest stars is British presenter Ed Stafford who, having walked the length of the Amazon, persuaded Dinnage to leave him stranded on a desert island for 60 days "with nothing at all, not even a stitch of clothing" in Naked and Marooned. There are many other British voices on Discovery. Presenter Bear Grylls is almost a pastiche of the TV survival genre. "What Bear eats, Bear has killed," I'm told curtly. The scatty English eccentric Anthony Archer-Wills landscapes breath-taking garden ponds in Pool Master and car salesman Mike Brewer fronts Wheeler Dealers. Both are transatlantic stars.

Dee Forbes, who leads Discovery in Western Europe, says the company is working with 70 British production companies and the UK is its international hub. The UK headquarters in west London has doubled staff to 1,200 in two years. Jean-Briac "JB" Perrette, new president of Discovery Networks International, is relocating there this year.

It owns British independent companies Raw and Betty and wants more UK content. TLC will shortly launch The Charlotte Crosby Experience, in which the winner of Channel 5's Celebrity Big Brother and star of MTV's Geordie Shore will travel the world, riding an Indian elephant and meeting geishas in Japan.

At "Upfront" I had the pleasure of meeting June Shannon, famous to TLC viewers as the mother of Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson, star of global TV phenomenon Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The family reality show grew from US TV's fascination with children's pageant shows (rather like the endless "gypsy" shows on British TV). Ms Shannon told me that the Daily Mail's obsession with the show online has helped drive interest worldwide.

It is not a modern remake of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, but it is the type of hit that Channel 5 would kill for. We may yet see it on that platform. Discovery's biggest UK adventure could be about to begin.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
News
Ireland will not find out whether gay couples have won the right to marry until Saturday afternoon
news
News
Kim Jong-un's brother Kim Jong-chol
news
News
Manchester city skyline as seen from Oldham above the streets of terraced houses in North West England on 7 April 2015.
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager (EMEA) - City, London

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?