Documentary TV: Channel Schedules Limited Series

Jun 6, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Since its inception in 1985, when it consisted only of its original flagship network Discovery Channel, Discovery Networks has used documentary programming to help fashion identities for its various individual brands.

The 2-year-old Discovery Times Channel, for instance, a joint venture between Discovery and The New York Times, has based its lineup on documentaries about current affairs and world events. Now the network has begun to broaden its programming strategy to offer documentary series as well.

Most recently, after televising three “Off to War” specials, the network greenlighted the show as a limited series for a 10-episode season, beginning this fall. For the series, documentary filmmakers and brothers Brent and Craig Renaud of Arkansas followed a National Guard unit of 57 men from Clarksville, Ark., who were called to duty in April 2004. It chronicles their deployment and service in Iraq as well as the feelings and reactions of those at home.

“These are real characters. This is better than any reality TV because it is reality,” said Vivian Schiller, senior VP and general manager for the network. “It follows these guys and gets to know them and follows what happens at home.”

Another documentary series, “Only in America,” focusing on subcultures such as fight clubs and gay rodeo, is also slated to launch on Discovery Times this fall.

The addition of these two series to the network schedule is significant because they represent Discovery Times’ first efforts to move beyond the tentpole programming strategy of scheduling everything around big, promotable specials. “Now that we are in 36 million homes, we need to shift to a series strategy,” Ms. Schiller said.

The network will continue to offer the one-off documentary specials on which it has built its brand. It recently ran programs on women in Saudi Arabia and on the crisis in Sudan.

Some of the fare is lighter-weight. New limited series set for June include “Times 7,” a magazine-style show examining topical events, and a show called “Superhomes,” on selling high-end real estate.

Many of the Discovery Times shows are the sort of meaty documentaries that could be on a PBS “Nova” or “Frontline” episode, said Richard Propper, president of the International Documentary Association.

The network launched in March 2003. Discovery Times produces about 30 hours each month of fresh content. Other programming, such as “Promised Land,” the Discovery Channel documentary on the migration of African Americans from the South to the North, is borrowed from its sister networks. But about 75 percent of Discovery Times content is unique to the channel, including originally commissioned, acquired and licensed programming, Ms. Schiller said.

“We felt there was a need for in-depth documentaries about news and recent events, whether it’s the war in Iraq or stuff happening in your neighborhood, using the best documentary techniques, great characters [and] compelling narratives,” she said. “We sort of occupy this space between news and documentary.”

As such, the channel is probably the purest of the Discovery networks in staying true to the documentary genre’s roots, said Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks. “[Ms. Schiller] has the latitude to be more traditional in what they do,” he said.

The network targets men and adults 25 to 54, and Ms. Schiller said the ad sales team sells the network as a companion buy to the news networks. In the first quarter of 2005, the median age of a Discovery Times viewer was 47, compared with 57 for the cable news networks, according to Nielsen data provided by Discovery Times.

Advertisers include CDW, Microsoft and Pfizer. The latter two have served as presenting sponsors for Discovery Times’ “Screening Room,” a programming block of festival-style films that launched in 2004. It’s a low-clutter environment for advertisers, Ms. Schiller said.

Discovery Times fits for CDW because the computer company’s target audience tends to be heavy news consumers, said Kathy Duhig, VP and associate media director at JWT Technologies, which handles media planning for the technology clients at J. Walter Thompson. Discovery Times also fits within a larger media buy on the big Discovery networks, the diginets and Discovery online properties, she said.