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Discovery reaches out to Hollywood

Aug 26, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The red carpet is about to be rolled out for Hollywood royalty at the most unlikely of places: the Discovery Networks.
That’s largely because Discovery’s new president, Billy Campbell, is the ultimate Hollywood insider.
Getting Discovery more in tune with Hollywood is one of his mandates, Mr. Campbell, the former Miramax and CBS executive, said in his trademark South Carolina drawl.
In the past several years Discovery may not have been “as inviting and as open” to the L.A.-based community of talent agencies, management companies and personal managers as it should have been.
“We’re saying to everybody [in Hollywood], `We want your passion projects,”’ Mr. Campbell said.
In fact, Mr. Campbell’s first Discovery project will be celebrity driven, sources said. Mr. Campbell himself would only say that the project would feature prominent “L.A. talent.”
A Discovery/Hollywood connection is not as far-fetched as one might imagine. Recent documentaries Discovery has done with Brad Pitt (about the rescue of orphaned grizzly bear cubs) and Julia Roberts (about Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that strikes children) are the
models for the kinds of passion projects he wants Hollywood to bring to Discovery. “Those are the kind of projects that are meaningful to the talent as well as to our audience,” he said, noting that those projects are not about money first.
Down the line, those “passion projects” may be institutionalized under a banner or within a formal framework if the “deluge of interest” Mr. Campbell said he has gotten for the concept continues.
One project Mr. Campbell said he is developing as a documentary project for the Discovery Channel will be modeled after “Project Greenlight,” the 12-episode HBO series that followed an aspiring filmmaker from first pitch to world premiere.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Campbell, when he was at Miramax, was one of the executive producers of “Project Greenlight.”
A Discovery version of “Greenlight” might begin with a Web site and a call to would-be documentarians to send in their proposals.
Another project in the works from Mr. Campbell is a medical talk show, hosted by a prominent surgeon, that will air weekly on the flagship Discovery Channel as well as on Discovery Health. If successful, the series will be stripped.
Also in the works are quarterly TV movies on “Animal Planet” and original movies for the Discovery Channel. He has also signed off on another maxi-documentary from the BBC that will take the critically acclaimed “Blue Planet” to “another level.”
Pushing the envelope
Another show Mr. Campbell is enthusiastic about is “Monster Garage,” a series that he didn’t develop but to which he gave the go-ahead during his first day on the job in June. He said the show, about “four, five guys spending the week killing themselves in a garage to take a traditional vehicle and turn it into something completely different” is an example of the kind of envelope-pushing in both programming and marketing that he intends to do at Discovery.
“We think that when you combine the content of the show along with the science of the show it’s going to be fabulous for our viewers,” he said, noting that Discovery has already taken the “Monster” cast to the so-called Bikers’ Woodstock, an event that annually overwhelms the little hamlet of Sturgis, S.D., as part of a promotional push that also includes a significant Internet chat room presence.
Mr. Campbell is also giving a promotional push to Jesse James, the custom-bike designer and builder featured on “Monster.” “Bringing him more into a prime-time series to be the host-slash-star is something that probably is very adventuresome for us,” he said.
But risk-taking in general, in both programming and marketing, at the Discovery networks is something else that Mr. Campbell is pushing. “If you look at the programming, particularly for the flagship Discovery Channel, I think that things probably have been a little bit static for a while,” he said, allowing that the ratings have been down a “little bit for the last year.”
A rebranding success story
That may lead to new looks at the channels, particularly at the flagship. TLC, formerly The Learning Channel, is the model for what Mr. Campbell thinks needs to be done. TLC has been “very successful at rebranding,” he said. “The goal that I’ve expressed to the company as well as directly to each [general manager] is that each channel needs signature series.” TLC’s cult hit “Trading Spaces” is that “in spades,” he added.
One experiment that gets an “A” from Mr. Campbell for risk-taking, but is not likely to be repeated, is “Beware of Dog,” Animal Planet’s venture into the sitcom genre. He intends to be “patient with it,” he said, but it is a “little bit of an aberration,” and becoming more fiction-program-oriented is not the direction that he wants to see Discovery’s networks go.
Judith McHale, president and chief operating officer of Discovery Communications, who picked Mr. Campbell for his new position out of hundreds of candidates, agreed that his Hollywood background was a bonus for Discovery. “I found someone who is a very, very strong manager, who has a very strong business background and combines that with great creative strengths,” Ms. McHale said.
One closely watched indicator of just how far in Hollywood’s direction Discovery might go has been Mr. Campbell’s own nesting behavior. If he continued to make his residence in Los Angeles, the thinking went, Discovery as an institution would soon follow. Instead, Mr. Campbell has gone to Washington, where he has just found a new house, and will spend the bulk of his time in Bethesda, Md., where Discovery is headquartered.
“The Residence Inn, nice as it is, is getting a little old,” he said.