In Depth

Clark Bunting, President and General Manager, Discovery Channel

clark-bunting.jpg"Our business is based on our ability to track an audience, make sure that we are consistent with the brand values and the company as a whole, bring in advertisers and make sure the cable affiliates say, 'You know what, we see this is really valuable.' " 

TVWeek: So, first of all, I don’t remember Discovery Communications without you. I think you were one of the first employees there.

Clark Bunting: I’ve been here a long time. It’s funny because we are very active in helping mentor young people and helping kids from university who would otherwise not have a shot at getting into the entertainment business. They’ll always say, ‘How did you get your job here?’ and I’ll say "I answered an ad in the Washington Post."

TVWeek: And as I recall, that really is how you got your first job at Discover.

Bunting: It’s absolutely true.

TVWeek: Well, they really made a good hire. And as I recall, you were on the team that thought up Shark Week, back in 1988, right?

Bunting: Yes. [Discovery founder] John Hendricks, Steve Cheskin and I were all part of that. And it’s kind of funny, Chuck. At the time we were trying to think what can we do [to make a splash and get attention], what kind of stunts? And it was then we were coming to the conclusion that if we had a theme week—which was pretty early on before folks figured out theme weeks and stunts and how stuff like that works. And it was one of those moments where we’re saying, "well, maybe we could do a week of sharks."

Swear to God, nobody in the moment knew [what it would become]. That really was one of the greatest promotional stunts in probably all of cable .

It’s funny, the number of times we came up with these great ideas in the early days here and later  people will come up to us and say, "Well how did you know [that it was going to be so successful]?" And the honest truth is, you don’t when you come up with the idea.  And if anybody tells you they do, they’re lying.

TVWeek: Actually this gives us a chance to talk about something that is a great strength of any company that does well over the years, like you guys have, and certainly an executive who’s done well. Could talk for a moment about the importance of being given the opportunity to try something new and different and being able to fail and not lose your job?

Bunting: That’s absolutely true. Our 25th anniversary is coming up and we’re going to pull together a tape on the worst shows we ever made.

TVWeek: As silly as that might sound, it’s incredibly instructive. I tell young people about  the legendary TV programmer who was at NBC, Brandon Tartikoff, and the number of terrible shows he came up with. He wasn’t shy about talking about them. He was a truly great programmer, and he realized the importance of trying something even it it flopped.

Bunting: I’ve had some bad ones. One of my personal favorites was called "Oceans of Air."

TVWeek: Tell us what that was.

Bunting: It was going to be about wind. And [a colleague] at one point says to me “Dude. What are the pictures?” And I said, “I don’t know, it’s trees. Fields of wheat. A lot of power behind wind, right?”

TVWeek: Well, you’ve also had some wonderful successes.

Bunting: Discovery is the number one media brand in the world. We can’t tell anybody what to think, of course, but on a good night you can say, ‘Here’s something important to think about.’ And the agenda setting opportunity is a treasure that very few programmers anywhere else in the world get to hold in their hand. And I think that is a great responsibility and a great burden of sitting in these chairs at this corporation.

Because you have to have it right. You’ve got to make sure the facts are correct. And at the same time people actually pay attention to these stories we tell. And these are stories that go worldwide.

So, again, it’s not so much that any given moment at any given night I look at the Science Channel or ID and say ‘Oh my god this is the best story we’ve ever told.’ But you look at the batting average at any given time and if you look at what I would call the holy trinity of ratings, revenue and brand, first and foremost in this building—and I hope it will always be first and foremost in this building—is brand.

TVWeek: I think that’s a very smart idea and a lot of people don’t keep their eye on that.

Bunting: Well if you look at a lot of what’s happening, in my opinion, cable has become broadcast.

TVWeek: What do you mean by that?

Bunting: Well, a lot of what you would have found in certain kinds of general entertainment has migrated from what was broadcast to cable. And cable, across multiple platforms, multiple medias, multiple devices, you look out there and just about anything that you would’ve thought about 20 years ago would be broadcast is now cable. And in abundance.

So what we have to do is continue to figure out, with all that clutter, and lots of people doing nonfiction now, how do we punch through the clutter? And the one thing that will always continue to be the bright shining light is brand.

When you look at it you say, "I think Discovery can tell almost any story but through a Discovery lens." And if you use that lens, and you use that as sort of the content compass of what we should do and what we could do, I think that’s where Discovery has an importance in the world of content disproportionate to its distribution.

TVWeek: That make sense. And I like the brand argument. Let me ask you a question about the Science Channel. Unfortunately, I’ll bet there are a lot of people out there who would say that in order to tune into something that sounds so dry and not entertaining as the Science Channel they’d have be drunk one day of the year and even then they probably wouldn’t do it. So how do you get people engaged in something that is so important, for example, as science? How do you make that engaging television?

Bunting: We get ‘em drunk two days a year.

Nah, but there is a great challenge and great dilemma with science. Like many of the networks that have done extraordinary well the name is a promise. And if you’re like me, I was traumatized by calculus in high school, I was traumatized by chemistry.

TVWeek: Right. I think that’s been many people’s experience.

Bunting: So I look at that label. And when I look at it, it literally looks like a periodic table. So what we’re trying to do with science is open the promise of science up, 'cause science is everywhere. Science is part of your everyday life. You use science when you decide when to cross the street. You use science when you turn your automobile on, when you get in the elevator. We have a great editorial and creative range. One of those shows that you’ll see—a personal favorite—is called “Punkin Chunkin.”

punkinchunkin.jpg"Punkin Chunkin" is basically how far can you throw a pumpkin. Huge amounts. And we have air cannons, we have trebuchets [sort of a giant wooden slingshot], and we have centrifugal spinners. All really deep and cool engineering and science behind those devices that throw a pumpkin 4400 feet this year. So what it does is: it’s fun, it speaks to American ingenuity, it’s inventive entrepreneur. We have a range of teams featured on the show that you wouldn’t believe. People from NASA, an all female team called Bad Hair Day, two guys who are literally just tinkerers in their backyard. And that is the kind of thing that speaks to people, that says science can be fun. Science can be accessible. Whoopi Goldberg and her “Head Games” show that we have.

At a meeting earlier this week we were talking to folks proposing to land a device on a comet. And they’re going to land that device on a comet, hopefully. NASA funding, all that sort of thing. In 2022. So, in conversation with these folks, and literally a room full of rocket scientists, what are we going to learn? And we learn about the composition of comets. How much ice, how much water, much of their chemistry.

Someone asked, “So why are you doing this?” And one of the scientists said, “Because it’s cool.” So I look at that and say, from the standpoint of science, we can do everything from “Punkin Chunkin” to “Young Scientist Challenge” with Will Smith to “Head Games” with Whoopi Goldberg to things as aspirational as being part of covering the landing of a device on a comet 12 years from today. That’s a pretty broad editorial and creative range.

TVWeek: I think most viewers, if you ask them to mention science programming, would pretty much just say PBS’s “Nova,” which I think most people would say is a pretty amazing show.

Bunting: I’m hopeful that they would say Discovery as well. I think Nat Geo’s done good work, particularly in the early days of Expedition. But I think what Paula [ S. Apsell, Nova’s senior executive producer] has done with “Nova’ is brilliant. The challenge of Nova is that those are handcrafted films. That’s handcrafting a custom car.

But we have to have hundreds of hours of original programming, on an annualized basis, intended for a broad audience that we have got to grow. Our business is based on our ability to track an audience, make sure that we are consistent with the brand values and the company as a whole, bring in advertisers and make sure the cable affiliates say, “You know what, we see this is really valuable.”

One of the things we think that the Science Channel can do is really drop down an octave and help young people get interested in science, technology, engineering and math. Stem education. Get kids to say, ‘calculus is cool.’

When I was growing up I wanted to be an astronaut. Everybody wanted to be an astronaut. And I look out there now, and we don’t have our next Carl Sagan. We don’t have our next David Attenborough. We don’t have our next Jacques Cousteau. So one of the things we’re looking to do—Debbie Myers the brilliant general manager of the Science Channel, does Talent School.debbiemyers.jpg So there’re all these really bright scientists out there. But they are not necessarily outstanding science communicators. And what we feel we have an obligation to do is get kids interested in science. But those kids are only going to be interested in science if we have great communicators.#

To read our introduction to this special report, "Cable TV Programmer of the Decade," click here.

To read our interview with Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav, click here.

To read our interview with Bruce Campbell, President, Digital Media and Corporate Development for Discovery, click here.

To read our interview with Bill Goodwyn, Discovery's President, Domestic Distribution and Enterprises, click here.

To read our interview with Henry Schleiff, President and General Manager, Investigation Discovery, Military Channel and HD Theater, click here.

To read our interview with Marjorie Kaplan, President and General Manager, Animal Planet Media Enterprises, click here.

To read our interview with Laura Michalchyshyn, President and General Manager, Planet Green, Discovery Health and FitTV, click here.

To read our interview with Joe Abruzzese, President of Advertising Sales for Discovery Communications, click here

To read our interview with Eileen O'Neill, President and General Manager of TLC, click here

To read our interview with Carole Tomko, President and General Manager of Discovery Studios, click here.

To read our interview with Mark Hollinger, President and CEO, Discovery Networks International, click here.