John Hendricks founded the Discover Channel in 1985. Now, as the chairman of Discovery Communications, the world’s top nonfiction media company, he supervises 27 entertainment brands that appear on more than 100 channels to 1.5 billion people in 39 languages and more than 170 countries. He is the first corporate leader to receive the National Education Association’s Friend of Education Award and serves on the board of directors of a number of non-profit organizations, including the United States Olympic Committee and the National Forest Foundation.
His new book, A Curious Discovery: An Entrepreneur’s Story, describes his journey as he started the company and what he’s learned from the experiences. In this interview, he talks about how he originally got into the media business, how he’s evolved to deal with changes in his industry, how he’s been able to attract the attention of millennials and shares his best advice.
How did you originally get into the media business and what obstacles did you see from the beginning?
I came into the media business from outside the media business. This goes back to 1982 and I was just observing what was happening in the cable television industry. There had been a significant Supreme Court case in 1975 that basically allowed the existence of satellite-delivered cable networks. Then there was a Supreme Court decision that was prompted by a lawsuit brought by HBO against the FCC. I was intrigued by that because I was a fan of documentary entertainment and when I was in college I was aware that there were so many documentaries because my job as a work-study student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, I had catalogues of documentaries that I would help the professors get in for their classes. I was waiting for someone to create my favorite kind of channel. In 1982, nobody was creating that kind of channel, so I had the idea to start the Discovery Channel. I came into it from outside the business, which had some advantages. I didn’t know all the reasons why it wouldn’t work and I think it was an advantage in a lot of ways.
You’re so right about that. We’ve gone from a time when we had three commercial-broadcasting networks and PBS back in the 1960′s and early 1970′s and with cable, we started to add additional channels. In the beginning, cable systems were limited to about 54 channels until the era of digital compression, which took place in the mid-1990′s and so that was just the explosion of channel choices and our response to that fragmentation was to think harder and not be one channel within a universe of two-, three-, four hundred channels. We quickly set out to create additional channels for distribution, first in the United States, and then around the world. That was our first step in dealing with fragmentation, was to be a multi-network player.
Secondly, as the Internet began to explode, that was another platform, which really has almost endless options of content. We’ve watched for the success stories of user-generated content. There was a company called Revision 3, that was founded and based in San Francisco, that started to accumulate some of the best talent, for example, on YouTube, and so we studied them intently and made an acquisition. That’s another way we deal with the fragmentation, is to look for success stories around the world, and make acquisitions where we can. In looking globally, we’re continuing to make acquisitions where our plan is to have scale and have multiple networks globally, including broadcasting, for example, with our recent acquisition of the Scandinavian Broadcasting System, we’ve acquired a number of broadcasting stations, in addition to new cable outlets. That’s our plan in dealing with the fragmentation and to get bigger and develop multiple networks that we can sell advertising around using the scale of their reach.
How do you think you’ll be able to compete for the attention of Millennials?
Well, that’s a key question because they, you know, largely, while television usage has increased among the total population, the traditional television-watching, has had a decrease as Millennials are going to other platforms. Our response is to look at winning content services that have been developed on the Internet. We are also developed pretty aggressively our own online services around each of our channels. If you visit TLC.com, Discovery.com, Science.com, you’ll see a wealth of content in addition to long form, that’s available on the channel. With the Millennials, they’re generally used to faster-paced, sometimes shorter videos and so we have those on our own website, and also on Revision 3, and then we look at development within YouTube. We have a new channel, really targeted at the Millennials, which is called TestTube, and this is a project that’s been developed from our division, called Revision 3, which I just talked about. Our plan in dealing with the Millennials is to study them, learn their viewing appetites, and then respond with content that’s directed at them.
Tell me about the whole experience with the tight-rope guy that was live-broadcasted, and there was a lot of social media usage. How did that work for you and what were some of the challenges, opportunities, and things that you saw based on that whole program?
This is one of the most successful combinations of both live television and social media that I think anyone has ever witnessed. We had 13 million viewers around the Nik Wallenda walk of the Grand Canyon. But, concurrent with all of that, we had a variety of online and social media content that coincided that walk, and so it ended up generating 1.3 million tweets, which we haven’t seen, nor anybody has seen, in a while around television. It was highly successful and was something that we’d planned for. We knew that this was going to be a big event. All of us who were involved looked at what this might mean in terms of excitement for the viewers. We knew it was going to be almost too resistible and so we anticipated a large audience, not quite the audience as large as that. I was hoping somewhere between 8 to 10 million. Typically, on a Sunday night, 60 Minutes will be one of the leading shows on television at about 8 million viewers. And we clearly outpaced them at 13 million viewers on Sunday night. We planned for aggressive use of social media and it really paid off for us.
Do you think you’ll be doing more of those type of programs?
Yes, absolutely. Today, any of our new productions have social media attached to them because our fans like to interact. Our fans of the “Deadliest Catch”, for instance, like to get closer to those shows and to the lead characters. That’s where, you know, the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram connections connect viewers closer with the characters they’ve come to love. That’s just a big part of all of our programming, is the social media aspect.
Oprah is one of a kind and we really enjoyed that partnership. We began to discuss a joint venture with Oprah back in 2007 and actually formalized that relationship in 2008. We’re 50/50 partners at the Oprah Winfrey Network. She’s been a terrific partner. New networks typically take three to four years to get to break-even and we expect that the OWN will break-even before the end of the year. We’re very excited about OWN, and especially the talent that’s been attracted to that channel, including most recently Tyler Perry. This has been a labor of love for Oprah and I think everybody that’s been associated with OWN has seen that this is one of the most rewarding networks we’ve been able to be part of
We’ve known Mark Burnett for a long time. He produced for us Eco-Challenge and we’re all learning our ways with Mark about the allure of reality television. Based off the success of Eco-Challenge, Mark went and developed “Survivor” where, we were a little nervous about the concept of Survivor. We thought, at the time, that it was a little bit contrived and so, we passed, but it became a big hit on CBS. We’ve enjoyed collaborating with Mark through the years. We took him up on his offer when he was the one to land Sarah Palin to give viewers a tour of Alaska and, so he produced that for us. It was actually his project and so we’ve had a great relationship with Mark./>/>
I write a lot about in the book about listening to your day dreams because that’s an indication of what you really find interesting in life and so that’s first and foremost, is to pay attention to your day dreams, and especially ones that just won’t go away. The first step is to be certain of your passions that originate with some deep curiosity that you have, if you want to create something new.
Third, and this is probably the most difficult, is to develop a level of confidence in your plan. Once you know you’re following your passion and your purpose in life and you’ve researched your business plan and you’ve become an expert, then armed with that, you should develop a level of confidence because you’re going to need it. All entrepreneurs are going to face the naysayers, and it’s really tough to hear rejection, whether you’re raising the capital to launch your business or you’re meeting with early distributors or retail outlets, if that’s your business. Become confident and rely on that when everybody else is saying “no” to your idea, you’ve got to forge ahead and make it happen.