87: With CuriosityStream, Discovery Channel Founder Creates a Netflix of Non-Fiction
We have an amazing guest today. John Hendricks founded the Discovery Channel Network. He saw a niche in the market of a lack of documentaries on TV and created the whole thing. As the founder and former chairman of Discovery Communications, he’s now become the founder and chairman of Curiosity Stream. His story is nothing short of inspirational. He went from a $100,000-second mortgage on his home, to the brink of bankruptcy to a 23 billion media empire. It’s one of the most engaging entrepreneurial stories you’re likely to hear about. To put in perspective how big Discovery was in its heyday, John was responsible for broadcasting 100 channels to 1.5 billion people in 39 languages and more than 170 countries. Millennials are now turning away from the TV and watching things online, so John is now focusing his attention on a new project called Curiosity Stream.
Can you tell the listeners a little about the journey of founding the Discovery Channel?
From the time I was a kid, I was curious like most people are. There wasn’t a lot on television that really addressed a lot of my curiosity, but there were a few bright spots. CBS journalist Walter Cronkite developed documentary content, along with the nightly news, in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. I was also influenced by some of the great things the BBC had done. When I was in college from 1970-1974, I was a work study student in the history department at the University of Alabama. My job was to get documentaries on 16 mm film for the professors to use in the classroom. As I looked through the catalogs of documentaries from the BBC and Encyclopedia Britannica I kept wondering why can’t this be on television? That is what started me on this journey. Then when cable television started its rise in the United States in 1975 with the launch of HBO as a movie service it became clear to me that there would be other channels that would offer a dependable category of content. Sure enough, Ted Turner created CNN, then ESPN came along as a sports channel, but there was no documentary service. In 1985 I was fortunate enough to finally get enough financing together to put the Discovery Channel up on satellite.
Can you tell me a little more about Curiosity Stream?
What drives me a lot of times is what I want to watch on TV. I think a lot of entrepreneurs listen closely and watch closely their own habits and is there something missing in the marketplace? Certainly, that was it for me in the early 70’s and early 80’s. There just wasn’t a dependable source of documentary entertainment, and that led to the Discovery Channel. Now the demand is for content to watch when I have an extra hour. I want to watch something when I want to watch it and preferably free of advertising.
Putting together this streaming service has its challenges. First, you have to develop the content (and for us that’s acquiring content from some of the leading producers around the world) then you have to develop a streaming service that really works.
There is a new service on Curiosity Stream that caught my eye called Deep Time History. Can you tell me a little more about that?
As we started developing Curiosity Stream, one of the things that we knew we needed to do was develop our own productions. In the beginning, I sat down with our head of programming Steve Burns and outlined a number of projects, and one of them was Deep Time History. It’s not just looking at the manmade influence of history but also the influences of geology, agriculture and even the formation of elements.
What’s your vision for the future of Curiosity Stream and streaming in general?
I believe the consumers will drive these next pathways in technology and the adoption of platforms. One of the things I’ve learned is that consumers will gravitate towards platforms that give them more control and that’s why I think streaming is here to stay. People want to watch what they want to watch when they have the time. A second characteristic that the consumer has really exhibited is that they gravitate towards those platforms that deliver closer to reality experiences. That’s what led to color TV’s, then cable, then digital, then high definition. We’re believers in this next wave of 4K or altered TV. Deep Time History was captured in 4K and that’s available for people who have a new TV set that is 4K capable. The next step beyond that is virtual reality. Believe it or not we have a slate of 12 shows in VR that we’re looking at capturing.
What’s next for you and Curiosity Stream?
We’re looking towards a new production we will soon have on Curiosity Stream about the rise of the computer revolution. This is something that’s so much a part of our lives that wasn’t part of our lives 40 or 50 years ago. How did this happen? So many people use the tablet, mobile phone or computer and they really don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes in their devices. That’s what we will do in this series called Digits.