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'Civilization' Seeks Current-Affairs Niche

A rebranded Discovery Civilization Channel will relaunch next spring with the mission of placing current events in a historical context, according to the head of the network.

Vivian Schiller, Discovery Civilization's senior vice president and general manager, said it's too early to reveal the network's new name. But she did say that its current label, Discovery Civilization, "is a little off-message for where we're going."

"The channel's orientation has been a sweep of history — culture and places," Schiller said. "It's not that we're abandoning that. But there is a last unfulfilled niche, that of a channel with long-form programming on current events. This is not news, but putting stories in a historical context. I don't see a lot of that out there."

The channel's new position — and its effort to be more topical — will take advantage of the resources of the network's new partner, The New York Times Co., which shelled out $100 million earlier this year to acquire 50 percent of the service.

The Times Co.'s involvement with Discovery Civilization "is a very important leg in our strategic effort," according to Tom Carley, president of the Times Co.'s news-services division.

"One of our goals is to reach out to different platforms" to carry the company's print content, he said.

Schiller last week held her cards close to the vest regarding specifics about the original programming the network has in the chute as it "morphs."

But Discovery Civilization's relaunch and rebranding efforts will kick off early next year, probably in March, according to Schiller, a veteran Cable News Network documentary maker.

"The combination of Discovery and The New York Times
really appeals to viewers," she said. "They associate quality storytelling with Discovery and good journalism with The New York Times."

Schiller now has her full executive team in place. Last week, she named Discovery Health Channel veteran Kevin Bennett as director of programming for Discovery Civilization, which is now in 19 million homes. He will be in charge of the development of all programming strategies and stunts for the network, and will manage the department's overhead and budgets. Bennett joined Discovery in May 1996 as senior research analyst for Discovery Channel.

Schiller has also brought over one of her colleagues from CNN, Bill Smee, as vice president of production and development. Smee, whose background combines journalism with long-form programming, will handle the creation of original programming for Discovery Civilization.

The Times Co.'s in-house production company, New York Times TV, will be just one of Discovery Civilization's program suppliers, according to Schiller.

She has been traveling back and forth from Discovery's headquarters in Bethesda, Md., to The Times's offices in Manhattan, getting to know many of the paper's reporters and editors and developing projects with them.

"Some of the enterprise pieces would make great TV," Schiller said.

Even before the relaunch, Discovery Civilization on Dec. 29 will run programming related to The New York Times Magazine's
annual feature The Lives They Lived,
which offers biographies of both famous and not-so-famous people who have died during the past year.