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Discovery Finds Itself

After buying online encyclopedia HowStuffWorks for $250 million—its biggest purchase to date—the Discovery Channel is unveiling an ambitious blend of new programming that attempts to stick with its knowledge-based roots, while tapping new subject matters and formats.

Under the stewardship of President/GM Jane Root, the network plans some scheduling tricks for the winter, shows on new subjects such as videogames and fighting techniques, and new formats, such as a daily How Stuff Works show in for late primetime. The new lineup also includes digital-only projects like an interactive, 3-D animated program about the state of the planet.

Discovery has climbed out of a ratings trough over the past two years by returning to its mission of programming shows about science, nature and general knowledge; it averaged 1.3 million total viewers in prime during third quarter, up 7% from last year. The network is looking to build upon that by creatively expanding the brand on TV and positioning itself as a top source for knowledge seekers online.

“A lot of our success has come from expanding the frontiers of what Discovery does, while sticking to our central idea that it's all about knowledge and adrenaline and intensity,” says Root, who joined the company from the BBC in 2004.

Ad buyers in general say they are pleased with the network's momentum. “They've been doing better over the past year,” says Horizon Media's Aaron Cohen, executive VP and director of broadcast. “It's a period of investment and retooling.”

At a time when branding has never been more important, Discovery is doing the difficult dance of trying to please operators by staying on brand, while keeping viewers and advertisers enthused with innovative programming. The goal, says Root, is to have the most on-brand programming be that which generates the highest ratings—and, subsequently, ad dollars. Discovery learned this the hard way a couple of years back when it turned off longtime viewers with over-programmed, off-brand shows like Monster Garage.

“We've got a huge world here to play in that can still be on-brand,” Root says.

This Christmas season, for example, the network is planning to subvert convention of programming reruns in prime by slating “Sneak Peek Week”—full premiere episodes of various new series from the next two quarters. Scheduled for 9 p.m. all that week, they include Bone Detectives, an archaeology show; Smash Lab, a series about investigating car crashes; and Fight Quest, a show about styles of fighting around the world.

Prior to the holidays, the network will bolster ratings smash Planet Earth with new series, including Rise of the Videogame, a five-part show about games from the 1970s through today; Futureweapons, a look at arms development; and Fearless Planet, a six-part series about natural wonders. Then in January, it will debut FightQuest.

Top among the shows they're touting in meetings this month with advertisers is How Stuff Works, a planned linear complement to the Wikipedia competitor Discovery acquired last week. The show, in the early phases of development, is being designed to run starting this summer as an hour-long vehicle in late fringe—a taped, interactive, topical show in which a team of experts solicits viewer inquiries on how things work (“How does deodorant work?” or “Why are there traffic jams?”) and answers them atop a running information ticker.

Acquiring the Atlanta-based site, an online encyclopedia vetted by an editorial team, was an effort to increase Discovery's market share of online users and exploit its content through sites other than those it launched in-house to complement its cable channels, says CEO David Zaslav.

“When I got here [in January], I thought we had the most potential of anyone online because we own our library and our content has long-tail potential,” he says. “We had to focus on pulling it together and presenting it in a way that will be captured by users who are interested in it.”

Discovery has also introduced more online content tied not to a specific show, but to the brand itself, including Life or Death Survival Quizzes and Discovery Planet Live, a program launching next month with animated illustrations and news articles about Earth-related science news.

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