Is Discovery Burying ‘Lost Tomb’?

Mar 8, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Discovery Channel’s controversial James Cameron-produced documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” drew the largest audience for the network in more than a year on Sunday night, but the network has taken several recent steps to downplay the project.

Departing from normal procedures, the cable network didn’t tout its big ratings win. The network also scheduled a last-minute special that harshly criticized its own documentary, has yanked a planned repeat of “Tomb” and has not put the documentary on its video-on-demand server.

“This is not one where you necessarily beat the drum, from a business perspective,” said David Leavy, executive VP of corporate communications at Discovery. “It’s not necessarily about making money, or making ratings, or shouting from the highest office building. Sometimes having some maturity and perspective is more important than getting picked up in all the ratings highlights.”

The documentary, executive produced by Oscar-winning “Titanic” director Mr. Cameron, claims to have found the family tomb of Jesus Christ, unearthed in Jerusalem. The findings include circumstantial evidence suggesting Christ and Mary Magdalene were a couple, and that they had a son named Judah.

Discovery formally announced the special last month and quickly incited a worldwide media frenzy, including stories in Time and Newsweek and links on the Drudge Report. But much of the coverage was highly skeptical of the documentary’s findings. Prominent archaeologists disputed the program, while Christian groups criticized it for conflicting with the New Testament.

Although Mr. Leavy said the network stands by the documentary “100 percent,” the company took several unusual steps in the wake of the controversy that could be seen as distancing itself from the content.

Last week, Discovery abruptly scheduled a panel debate to air after the documentary, moderated by Discovery newsman Ted Koppel. Discovery’s announcement of the panel emphasized that Mr. Koppel “has no connection to the production of ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus'” and that “the panel will explore the filmmakers’ profound assertions and challenge their assumptions and suggested conclusions.”

When the panel discussion aired, guests criticized the documentary as “archaeo-porn” that played fast and loose with the facts.

The day after the March 4 airing, Discovery yanked a planned repeat of “Tomb” from its more hard-news-branded Discovery Times Channel.

Discovery has also not released the documentary on video on demand.

When the Nielsen ratings revealed that “Tomb” averaged 4.1 million viewers — Discovery’s largest audience since September 2005 — the network declined to put out a press release touting the numbers, as would be standard practice for a highly successful premiere. The second-season premiere of Discovery Channel’s “Future Weapons,” for instance, earned a media announcement for its audience of 2.5 million. A network representative, however, insisted Discovery was not trying to bury “Tomb.”

No press release on the ratings was sent out, Mr. Leavy said, because of the show’s subject matter. As for the yanked Discovery Times repeat, Mr. Leavy said that outlet wasn’t the best time slot to repeat the special and that the network is “evaluating” future airings.

The last record-setting Discovery Channel project also was about a sensitive subject, the9/11-themed “The Flight That Fought Back,” yet Discovery issued a press release about its ratings.

The network still plans to air a previously scheduled “Tomb” repeat on its Spanish network on March 18, as well as an HD version on Discovery HD Theater on March 28.

“We are very proud of the program — we stand by it 100 percent,” Mr. Leavy said.

Mr. Leavy said the network should be credited for airing a critical post-show panel.

“We added the Koppel panel once it was clear there was worldwide interest,” he said. “Our responsibility is to give viewers all the information and let them decide. There is no way to ever prove this beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Moving forward, Mr. Leavy said the network plans to increase its focus on archeology projects. The network recently signed History Channel’s “Digging for Truth” host Josh Bernstein to develop new archeology series and specials.

“We are going to be doubling down in this space,” he said. “We will soon be back in the news with more archeology.”

(Editor: Horowitz)