Discovery Communications kicked off its 2008 upfront road show Monday in Chicago, unveiling new programming featuring coal miners, sled dogs and escape artists
The network also is launching a promotional campaign with a catchy, sing-along chorus.
Discovery’s ratings among viewer 18 to 49 were off 12% in the first quarter, a period during which 35 other cable networks experienced gains of 10% or more.
John Ford, who returned to Discovery Channel as president and general manager in November, said the dropoff was partly the result of comparisons to last year’s first quarter, which included the high-rated “Planet Earth.” But the channel also had only about 70 hours of new programming to show this year, down from the 115 new hours it typically has in the quarter.
Running out of shows was the “result of various pipeline issues,” Mr. Ford said. However, he expects the channel to get back on track in the second quarter when a new season of its top-rated show “Deadliest Catch” debuts, backed by a substantial marketing campaign.
The network is addressing the programming shortage.
“We’ve been crazy busy putting together shows into production on an accelerated cycle,” Mr. Ford said.
Some of those shows are a part of Discovery’s upfront presentation. After Chicago, the network will be in Los Angeles next week and in New York on April 23.
Mr. Ford is presenting a number of new series that are targeted to go on the air in the fourth quarter.
One new show is “Prototype This,” in which a group of CalTech Ph.D.s is given $500,000 and 13 assignments to build working models for projects that are now just interesting ideas, such as a car controlled by biofeedback.
“One Way Out” pits a Houdini-like self-described “escapologist” against a diabolical engineer who tries to design enclosures that will be difficult to exit.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Mr. Ford said. “Sometimes he gets out, sometimes he doesn’t get out.”
Discovery is working with the BBC on a multipart series called “Nature's Great Events,” using the kind of spectacular photography employed on “Planet Earth.” Episodes will focus on large groups of animals traveling long distances, like the great wildebeest migration.
“Inside Planet Earth” uses computer-generated imagery to peek at what’s going on underneath the planet’s surface in the molten core and magnetic layers.
Mr. Ford also is showing two new shows from Thom Beers, producer of “Deadliest Catch” and History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers,” who recently signed a deal to produce weekend shows for NBC.
One of the shows from Mr. Beers is about a family-run coal mining company; it's tentatively titled “Coal Miners.”
“It’s a fascinating kind of cultural look at brawny men dong a dangerous job in perilous circumstances," said Mr. Ford, making the series sound a bit like “Deadliest Catch.”
Mr. Beers’ Original Productions also is working on a series that followed the Iditarod sled race with four camera crews. As it turned out, one crew was following the eventual winner of the race and another tracked the team that finished last.
The new shows “are on the Discovery brand,” with a mix of information and entertainment.
Mr. Ford said in the past five months there have been four incidents in the news in which people in perilous situations were able to save their own lives thanks to information learned by watching Discovery programs.
Most shows on TV attempt to entertain, he said, but “people come to the channel and they expect to take something more away.”
A new promotional campaign for Discovery Channel will premiere during the launch of season four of “Deadliest Catch” on April 15.
A spot features the kids song “I Love the Mountains” and uses the theme “The World Is Just Awesome.” The spot features appearances by Discovery personalities Mike Rowe and Bear Grylls (as well as a cameo by Stephen Hawking), but viewers are most likely to get caught up in the song's chorus: "Boom de ah da, boom de ah da.”
”We like the optimism and upbeat nature of the spot,” Mr. Ford said. “People will make fun of it. If it shows up on ‘Saturday Night Live,' we’ll know we have broken through.”
The campaign also uses a new logo, in which the familiar Discovery globe is on top of the “D” in the channel’s name. That combination of the “D” and the globe becomes the bug that appears in the corner of the screen to identify the channel. It’s smaller than the old bug, which spelled out Discovery horizontally.
“People will know they’re watching Discovery,” he said, but the bug “is less intrusive."