In Depth

Discovery Channel Lays Programming Bets

When We Left Earth

Although the “Men With Dangerous Jobs” niche has been successful, Discovery Channel President John Ford is developing new series in other genres for the remainder of the year.

“We’re also in the middle of development or production on a bunch of shows that fit under the ‘ingenuity under pressure banner,’ where ‘Mythbusters’ resides,” Mr. Ford said.

It’s all part of Discovery’s push to double its hours of original programming, as Mr. Ford said in this interview with TelevisionWeek Senior Editor Jon Lafayette. The channel is looking to improve its ratings and bolster revenue with the new shows.

Mr. Ford is high on a series called “Prototype This,” in which a group of engineers with PhD’s from MIT have to build a working model of an invention.

In one show, the engineers are tasked with creating a car that can park anywhere. The vehicle has wheel that turn sideways to slip into tight spots. The wheels also extend so that the car can park above another vehicle without touching it.

Another show unveiled during Discovery’s upfront is “One Way Out”, which has since been retooled.

Instead of being a one-hour show featuring one big Houdini-like escape, Mr. Ford decided several less involved escapes in a half-hour show would grab viewers more. Instead of having the escapes designed by a devilish engineer, the show’s escape artist will be creating his own predicaments. Is that a case of being able to take a test for which you’re written the questions?

“He does design the situation he’s going to be in. But then he really does have to figure out a way out,” Mr. Ford said, adding, “Somebody else has to tie him up. He can’t tie himself up, He’s not that good.”

“One Way Out” is also in that ingenuity under pressure category, Mr. Ford said.
“That’s a strand that we really own and we want to make sure we continue to own it,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s an interesting, exciting, fun, design-engineering space, built around American ingenuity.”

Another series, “Time Warp,” is built around ultra high speed photography. Cameras that shoot at up to 10,000 frames per second are used to produce ultra slow-motion photography that shows “the extraordinary side of something ordinary,” Mr. Ford said.

Take something simple like a dog drinking water from a bowl: Mr. Ford says the slow-motion footage shows how the dog’s tongue forms a little cup that sloshes the water back up into its mouth.

“It opens up the world to explanations of things you didn’t know you didn’t understand until you see them,” Mr. Ford said.

The network’s new show following the “Iditarod” dogsled race has been shot and is being edited. Discovery had cameras following the race’s winner, the last place finisher, and two other entrants.

“They’re wonderful stories,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s not really a race so much as a battle against the elements by men and women and their dogs.”

“Storm Chasers” is returning for a new season that features terrifying footage, and a series called “Next World,” about life in the future, will hit the airwaves. That show is built on last year’s successful program “Future Car.”

The network is creating a special called “Discovery’s Project Earth,” which commissions scientists to develop big ideas for reducing global warming. How big? One idea is to shoot a rocket into space to create an array of lenses that would act like a giant pair of sunglasses, reducing the sun’s intensity by about 2%. Another is to put a blanket over the Greenland ice cap to keep it from melting. Obviously, with these types of projects there are numerous technical issues to be overcome.

The effort also proves that global warming is most likely to be alleviated by ordinary things individual can do, like using fluorescent bulbs, or advances in technologies that can replace fossil fuels, Mr. Ford said.

There are also scheduling stunts in the works.

The network later this year will be bringing back “Planet Earth,” which hasn’t been seen since last fall, with new extra features. Discovery is planning a prehistoric week for the summer focusing on dinosaurs and mammoths.

There’s also the channel’s longest-running perennial favorite.

“We’re very excited about Shark Week this year,” Mr. Ford said. Airing two weeks before the start of the Olympics, it will kick off with a two hour “Mythbusters” special, and generally be terrifying, Mr. Ford said.

“People are going to stop taking showers,” he said.