The Discovery Channel celebrates its fifth birthday Sunday with an added milestone: The cable network specializing in nature, science, history and informational programming has hit 50.3 million subscribers.
"We just broke a record!" said John Hendricks, founder, president and chief executive officer of the Cable Educational Network, which owns and operates Discovery. "We are the only network ever that has reached 50 million homes by our fifth anniversary. Who would have thought it? I can remember when I was trying to raise money to start this thing I heard every reason in the world why it wouldn't work."
Eight years ago, Hendricks came up with the idea for Discovery and spent the next 18 months trying to arrange financing. It was a nearly impossible task.
"You might remember the (early '80s) CBS Walter Cronkite series, 'Universe,' " Hendricks said. "The cancellation was poor timing for me because it was exactly the type of programming I saw as a format for the channel. A lot of venture capitalists said if it was such a good idea, why did CBS cancel it?"
Hendricks decided to ask Cronkite. The anchorman told him that the series got good ratings for its time slot, Tuesdays at 8 p.m., and that it drew viewers who didn't watch regular TV programs. But when "Universe" ended, the audience turned CBS off.
Cronkite told Hendricks he believed an entire network devoted to documentaries and specials was viable. "Cronkite wrote me a nice letter and invited me to share it with anyone who doubted me that it could work. With that kind of endorsement, plus a lot of others who thought it would work, I was able to put this thing on," Hendricks said.
He was able to scrape together $4 million. "Anyone who knew anything about TV stayed away," he said. "I think one of the secrets of my success is that I didn't know all the reasons why this wouldn't work."
Discovery was launched in June, 1985, with 156,000 subscribers. Within six months it was in 4 million homes. Then the money ran out, but several communication companies, including TCI and United Artists, came to the rescue with $20 million.
Discovery, which is now on the air 18 hours a day, originated with a 12-hour-a-day schedule of programming bought primarily from Britain and Canada. "It was me going to the BBC and TV Ontario and to independent producers," said Hendricks. "There was a wealth of documentaries out there, so we had enough product."
Two years later, Discovery ventured into its first co-production with the BBC--"Red Sea Live."
The channel also has made a mark with innovative programming. While ABC was airing "Amerika" in February, 1987, Discovery counterprogrammed the miniseries with 66 hours of Soviet television, ranging from exercise shows to rock videos to game shows. Discovery received the Golden Ace Award for the coverage. During the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in April, 1988, Discovery aired five telecasts of "Vremya," the Soviet evening news.
Today the channel has a lofty yet admirable goal: "I think our bread and butter is helping people understand, if you will, the majesty and wonder of the world," said Greg Moyer, senior vice president of the channel's programming group. "We also feel very strongly the need to sensitize and help people understand how complex our environmental issues are today. We have made a 10-year commitment to showcase environmental issues.
"I think Discovery is looking for a way through TV to let people understand what is wondrous and complex about our world in ways that are entertaining and informative."