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the brains behind smart tv : How John Hendricks Is Helping Shape the Future of a More Intelligent World of Television

June 25, 1995|WARREN BERGER | Warren Berger is a free-lance writer based in New York. He writes about media and advertising for the New York Times, Advertising Age and GQ. His last article for this magazine was "Chaos on Madison Avenue."

Last winter, as the air in Washington rang with politicians' cries to "zero out" government funding for public broadcasting, with some calling for the head of Barney the Dinosaur on a platter, John Hendricks was characteristically quiet. All he did was write a letter.

It would have been understandable if Hendricks, who runs cable TV's Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, had joined the public television lynch mob--if only to watch and gloat. After all, Hendricks, perhaps even more than House Speaker Newt Gingrich is nudging PBS--ever so gently--toward the precipice. By bringing PBS-style documentaries to cable television, Hendricks has helped to create an alternative for high-minded TV viewers and corporate sponsors, draining some of the lifeblood from PBS and making it more vulnerable than ever to its longtime critics.

Still, Hendricks, 43, wasn't about to join the crowd that was kicking PBS last December. For one thing, the soft-spoken, Southern-born entrepreneur is too polite. For another, he's too smart. Hendricks instead sent a cordial note to PBS President Ervin S. Duggan, suggesting the following: Discovery would help pay production costs for top PBS shows such as "NOVA" and "Nature" if PBS would allow Discovery to show the programs first (with subsequent airings on PBS). It was a perfect solution for all, by Hendricks' reckoning: PBS would save money, Discovery would have a couple of hot shows to sell to its advertisers, and no viewer--wired for cable or not--would lose out. That's one way of looking at it; one might also surmise that in such a deal, PBS would lose an important piece of its established franchise, while Hendricks' upstart Discovery Communications would just keep getting stronger.

To date, Duggan hasn't responded to the letter, but Hendricks thinks it may be just a matter of time before PBS is compelled to seek out such partnerships. And he insists that if it joins him, the experience will be painless. "I like PBS," he says, smiling beneath his thick mustache. "I don't want to see anything bad happen to them."

In the genteel business world of John Hendricks, it seems, everybody wins; it's just that Hendricks wins more. During the past decade, Hendricks has created and shown more educational documentaries than anyone else in commercial television. And he has been rewarded with a company that has $2 billion in revenues and is poised to become an international multimedia empire.

The Discovery Channel reaches 64 million homes, about two-thirds of television households in the United States, and Hendricks has begun piping the channel into Europe, Asia and Latin America. He has already created four additional cable channels--dedicated to nature, science, history and lifestyle documentaries--that will show up on some cable systems in coming months. Last month, he acquired a chain of stores that he will convert to Discovery retail outlets, selling nature and science videotapes and CD-ROM discs. And next year, Discovery will venture into movie theaters with big-screen nature films that, Hendricks hopes, may snatch some of the "Lion King" family-movie crowd from the clutches of Disney.

As his empire grows, PBS seems destined to keep shrinking, which means Hendricks could emerge as the leading proponent of "smart TV." Walter Cronkite, the former network news anchor who now produces documentaries for Discovery, says of Hendricks: "He'll be at the forefront of enlightened television for years to come."

But will that be a good thing? Critics say that Hendricks' programming steers clear of anything that might displease advertisers. Though it's hard not to admire Hendricks--a squeaky-clean Alabamian who might be the only commercial TV programmer in America to have gotten rich by not underestimating the intelligence of his audience--some wonder whether he can reconcile the conflicting interests of commercialism and educational TV.

"What Discovery has tried to do runs parallel to public TV, but the question remains as to whether they, or any cable network, will take the leaps into daring programming," says longtime PBS producer and news anchor Robert MacNeil. "Will they be willing to do something just because it's a worthwhile idea, without being overly mindful of ratings and commercial concerns? The jury is still out."

If Hendricks is the future of smart TV, viewers should prepare to receive a practical education because his company will never be mistaken for a benevolent public broadcasting bureaucracy. On the contrary, it is a model of marketing-driven, bottom-line pragmatism. At Discovery, enlightenment is good; but enlightenment that pulls ratings, helps sell luxury cars and can be spun off onto CD-ROM discs is even better.

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