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Domestic Travel Drives Destination America

Marc Etkind, general manager of Discovery’s 1½-yearold Destination America, tells a story about his immigrant grandfather taking his family on vacation across the U.S. driving a Packard.

Etkind’s boss, Henry Schleiff, Discovery Communications group president, says he’s heard the story at least four times. “I’m getting to feel like I miss the grandfather,” Schleiff says. But the tale Etkind spins illustrates two key points. “He’s a good storyteller, and that’s at the heart of everything that Destination America is about,” Schleiff says. “And he understands the appeal under the umbrella of this Americana theme.”

Etkind grew up in New Haven, Conn., in a family of doctors. His grandfather was the last physician to make house calls in the city. His dad was also a doctor. “My father would pick me up from school and say, ‘I have to stop on the way home.’ He’d stop at the hospital, go in the back entrance through the emergency room,” he recalls. “I knew right away that was not the life I wanted to lead. I just couldn’t handle the blood.”

Still, he majored in biology at Brown University, which led to interesting summer jobs like being a bird warden on an island with 10,000 terns. It also helped lay the groundwork for a career in producing science programming.

Etkind’s first industry job was with Chedd-Angier, a production company where he made Scientific American Frontiers, hosted by Alan Alda, and In Simplest Terms, “the best 26-part series on algebra ever made,” he says.

After a ride-along with New York City police trained to work with emotionally disturbed people, Etkind wrote a book about suicide notes called Or Not To Be. “It’s gained a cult following,” he says. “There have been artworks based on it, plays, even some music. But I would definitely call it my dark period.”

Taking a ‘Shine to History

Etkind set up his own production company, making shows for cable networks including Rumrunners, Moonshiners and Bootleggers for History, which eventually hired him as senior director of programming. “It was an exciting time to be at that channel and witness the early transition from history and towards an entertainment brand,” he says.

Etkind then got an offer he couldn’t resist from Animal Planet president Marjorie Kaplan as that channel turned from a niche network to an entertainment brand. After churning out successful shows including Gator Boys and Finding Bigfoot, he was on the short list to run a network at Discovery Communications when plans to rebrand Planet Green as Destination America hatched.

Schleiff liked Etkind’s background as both a producer pitching shows and as an executive developing shows. “He’s proven to be a really creative executive. He’s got leadership skills. And he’s got the requisite feistiness when you have a network that’s still growing,” Schleiff says. “The proof is in the pudding that after a little more than a year in existence, the network has essentially doubled its profits.”

It’s been a good fit. As a kid, Etkind’s dad took him in a Woodie station wagon on a cross-country family trip similar to his grandfather’s, visiting Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Sequoia national parks. “There’s something about seeing America that creates an emotional bond,” he says. When his college classmates took semesters off to go to Europe, Etkind visited small-town Arkansas.

Even now, vacations are domestic, most recently visiting the Tennessee mountains where his brother lives. Etkind’s spouse would probably prefer he ran Destination Anywhere Else. “My wife says can we please leave the country on our next vacation, but there’s so many places we haven’t been,” he says.

That’s part of the attraction of Destination America shows such as Buying Alaska and Buying the Bayou, which provide the flavor of what it would be like to move to those places. Another top-rated DA show, BBQ Pitmasters, has a different appeal. “When I was at Animal Planet, I was a vegetarian. And now that I’m at Destination America, I am back eating meat,” Etkind says.