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When the idea for Discovery Channel came to me in the spring of 1982, I had a clear vision for what I wanted the network to be -- a showcase for the type of compelling nonfiction programming that had inspired me, such as Carl Sagan's Cosmos and great BBC documentary series like the Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. What I didn't have was a brand. I remember leafing through periodicals such as Broadcasting magazine, looking at the early television network broadcast brands, as well as the new cable brands that were springing up across the country.
I was drawn to more descriptive names, such as Ted Turner's Cable News Network (which probably inspired me to incorporate my company as Cable Educational Network, though I knew we could never launch a service with that name).
What I wanted was something bright-sounding and uplifting that would closely describe not just the content, but what viewers would experience when they watched. I didn't want to go the route of Nickelodeon, which is now an established and popular brand, but originally the word Nickelodeon did not inform viewers up front that it was a children's network. Establishing that type of brand would have required a level of marketing spend that I simply couldn't afford. Instead, I needed something that would make an immediate connection with the viewer.
The brand actually came about after a meeting in late spring 1984 with some cable system executives in Florida who were interested in carrying the channel. I told them in the meeting that I had yet to decide on a name, and they said I had better come up with one pretty soon. So, I spent the flight back to Washington staring at the five candidate words that I had come up with: Vista, Horizon, Explore, Discovery and Wonder -- and I kept coming back to Discovery. I knew how I felt when I discovered something new. I thought the word was comprehensive and broad enough that viewers could discover the past through history programs, discover the future through science and technology programs, and discover the world through nature and cultural programs. I remember, as the plane began its final approach for landing, circling the word "Discovery." That was a Friday, and on Monday morning we were the Discovery Channel.
After picking the brand, we decided, from a visual perspective, to wed the typography with a globe. I wanted to convey that the Discovery Channel was there to help viewers explore their world. That globe has been with us ever since. Through the years, every time we have hired a new marketing director or creative head, their first mission, it seems, is to change the logo. I always imagine how many times throughout Coca- Cola's history there must have been efforts to change the iconic Coca-Cola script that we all know, but they have resisted. That is something Discovery also has tried to doâ€”keep our logo consistent and ensure that the programming on Discovery Channel remains true to our brand promise.
Staying on brand is a particular challenge for the cable industry, much more so than the broadcast networks. CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox are broad entertainment brands not connected to viewers through a particular content promise. Cable networks, on the other hand, almost by definition, do not appeal to the lowest common denominator. Whether it is Fox News, CNN, ESPN, Discovery or other networks, we know that we are never going to appeal tothe majority of television viewers.
At Science Channel, for example, we know, at any given time, the channel is going to really appeal to about 25% of television viewers who are information-seekers. That means, in the course of a month, out of the 70 million households who receive Science, maybe 20 million at most will actually tune in. You can see that as a negative, that we are missing out on 75% of viewers. I see it as a positive.
In cable, unlike the broadcast networks, we have established our presence in the consumer mind through very powerful brands that have a particular appeal, a connection with an audience, who are loyal and dedicated in a way they are not with broad-appeal networks. Viewers love the many cable brands, not just particular programs. They come back to cable because of the promise we have made about what they can expect. Our focus should always be on nourishing those viewers and staying consistent with what we have promised. One of the most important responsibilities we have as cable executives is protecting our brands and keeping them consistent for consumers.
The temptation, of course, is to drift from the core promise that speaks to a smaller segment of society, our particular 20% or 30% niche, and to go after a larger viewership. The problem, however, with shows that stray off -brand, is that you will get some viewers, but they typically will not be viewers who are really attracted to your core programming. We have experienced it at Discovery, and I have seen it elsewhere. When a cable network drifts off -brand, it may enjoy some short-term ratings strength over a period but then, suddenly, the numbers start to shrink again because the core audience has been driven away. As soon as you are not predictable anymore, true to your brand promise, people stop checking you out. This was true in the world of 50 channels, it is even truer in the world of 500 channels, and it will be absolutely crucial as we embark on the next phase in television's evolution. Today, we are in a period of transition. Over the next 10 to 20 years, the way we consume content will change from the world of numerical channel-surfing that we have known since the inception of television, to menus of content. As this occurs, it is going to be the predictable, quality brands that stand out and prosper. I know, for example, that a made-for- TV movie from HBO stands for something. I know it stands for quality. HBO puts tremendous effort and creativity into everything it does. Otherwise, it wouldn't be an HBO original. The HBO menu of movies will stand out. It stands out now on today's digital cable menus. It will stand out even more in the future. And, likewise, at Discovery, we want our brands to stand out in the documentary and nonfiction entertainment space. Especially as new platforms and delivery technologies emerge, we want to ensure that people seek out and trust the Discovery brand as a place where they consistently find quality content they can trust and enjoy, no matter how they are viewing it.
The critical importance of brand goes to the heart of issues we are facing today with the Amazons, Apples, Googles, Netflixes and whatever is coming next. As content owners, we want the money these new distribution channels promise, but as we look to take advantage of these opportunities we must be vigilant in not sacrificing long-term sustainability for shortterm gain. Keeping our content brand independent of the delivery technology enables us to play in everything from print media, Internet media, television media and hard copy media, to all of the new technologies and platforms on the horizon.
Since we first launched the Discovery Channel in 1985, I have always talked to our employees about the importance of not defining our service as a cable network. Instead, we are in the business of helping consumers explore their world and satisfy their curiosity. As we move to new distribution platforms and screens, it will be more important than ever that our brands remain intact, or we will lose the connection we have worked so hard to establish with our audience, and our content will become simply a commodity.
Resist the temptation. Stick to your brand. Stay true to your promise, and, through all of the technology disruption on the horizon, your audience will stay true to you.
John S. Hendricks is the founder and chairman of Discovery Communications.
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