Essentially completing its retreat from a plan that would have eliminated credits from its telecasts, Discovery Networks U.S. unveiled a second revision of its policy Thursday, agreeing to grant producers the option of maintaining the status quo or shifting the lion's share of credits to the start of programs.
The Bethesda, Md.-based company--which operates several cable networks, including its flagship Discovery Channel, TLC and Animal Planet--alarmed program suppliers by holding a series of meetings this spring to outline the proposed shift, citing research that suggested scaling back end credits would result in better audience flow from program to program and thus higher ratings.
Discovery's "credit initiative" would have limited producers to a five-second card identifying the production company and any mandatory credits at the program's end, otherwise directing viewers to a Web site where full credits would be available.
The policy announced Thursday officially eliminates the Internet option, with Discovery admitting the proposal "created a high level of anxiety" within the production community that the company "could not ignore."
The alternative option now calls for credits to run during the first 30 seconds of a program, with five-second cards at the end thanking anyone else involved in the show along with the production company logo.
Discovery began back-pedaling from the idea of excising credits in late April, after news of the initiative prompted criticism from the International Documentary Assn. and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. At that point the network sought to craft a compromise, saying producers would be allowed to choose between running credits as they're displayed now or adopting the Web alternative.
That still didn't sit well with documentary filmmakers and Hollywood guilds, however, who organized to voice their concerns by forming a group dubbed the Documentary Credits Coalition.
"To me, the exciting story is about people who were disenfranchised and didn't have a cohesive voice coming together and prevailing," said Michael Donaldson, an attorney and president of the International Documentary Assn. who spearheaded the coalition.
Perhaps foremost, producers worried that Discovery's plan would spread to other networks (although some are obligated to run credits under existing guild contracts). At the outset, many were reluctant to voice their complaints publicly because they feared alienating Discovery, a significant buyer of documentary programs.
John Ford, president of the content group for Discovery Networks U.S., initially downplayed the idea that credits had any significance to viewers, and suggested that they have already been sped up and shoved to the side of the screen--as NBC does during its "Must-See TV" lineup--making the discussed change less than revolutionary.
As it is, some viewers say credits race by so quickly that they can barely make them out. "I feel sorry for the poor performers who don't get to see their names," said Harriette Smith, 65, who lives in West Los Angeles. "I want to know who did what."
Although some producers acknowledge that credits may signal viewers to begin flipping around to other channels, producers and the guilds have argued that credits are currency used by production personnel to secure future work. In addition, they say, credits inform viewers who is responsible for a program, with one likening the no-credit policy to running newspaper articles without bylines.
Despite Discovery's concessions, producers privately say they anticipate contract terms will be altered and that the issue will eventually resurface as programmers continue to explore methods to discourage channel-surfing.
Donaldson gave Discovery credit for being responsive to the misgivings expressed, but conceded that the television market is so competitive that programmers will be tempted by any approach with the potential to boost ratings.
"The chapter's closed; I don't think the book is," he said. "The creative community has to be vigilant."