The constant influx of celebrities not commonly associated with the educational and informative programming that remains the center of the Discovery brand is also noteworthy. For example, by the time the engaging if somewhat over-long presentation yesterday at Jazz at Lincoln Center came to its conclusion, entertainment personalities including Ron Howard, Roseanne Barr, Jack Wagner, Lynn Herring, Leah Remini and Toni Braxton, among others, had taken the stage to discuss upcoming projects across a wide-range of Discovery networks.
The presentation spanned eight networks -- Animal Planet, TLC, Science Channel, Investigation Discovery, Velocity, Destination America, the Discovery Channel mothership and OWN -- and dozens of specials and new and returning series. Collectively, the programs presented on that stage represented the impressive results that come with thinking outside the box.
I remember when all things Discovery were regarded as stridently educational or documentary-like. Certainly, the brand’s tradition of education and enlightenment is evident in each of these networks (and the Discovery networks not included in the presentation), even if it is sometimes a reach to say so (especially when it comes to some of the stuff on TLC). They offer programming that explores real life in one fashion or another, much of it is as instructive and illuminating as anything the Discovery Channel itself has ever offered. That said, I cannot recall another example of a network group expanding as Discovery has over the years into so broad and multifaceted a franchise.
Programming highlights of the presentation included a preview of the upcoming exclusive coverage by Science Channel and Discovery Channel of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, an international competition in which 18 teams will compete to land unmanned spacecraft on the moon and transmit live pictures back to Earth; “Everest Jump Live” and “Skyscraper Live with Nik Wallenda,” two Discovery Channel specials with self-explanatory titles; “Survival Live,” a 42-day, live multiplatform Discovery Channel series following eight survivalists in a remote area and who will benefit if they build relationships with home viewers; and most impressively Animal Planet’s “The Yao Ming Project,” in which the former NBA player and Olympian takes on and attempts to end the savage slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses for their tusks and horns.
The best was saved for last when Oprah Winfrey -- as bouncy and upbeat as she was when she famously gave away all those cars on an historic installment of her much-missed afternoon talk show -- presented with great infectious enthusiasm the stars of a number of current and upcoming programs on OWN, including John Schneider and the rest of the cast of the network’s breakout prime-time soap opera “The Haves and the Have Nots.” Series creator Tyler Perry was also there to receive some love.
Winfrey has been a bit lower key and more traditionally businesslike in her previous appearances at Discovery upfront events, perhaps because OWN was experiencing significant growing pains, or because she thought she should act a bit more serious as the head of her own network. But the network is doing much better now and she seemed the happier for it. Indeed, she was so upbeat it was almost as if she was there as a fan rather than an executive. The bubbly persona worked, lighting up the audience after two hours of countless clips and multiple program previews and research summaries from Discovery executives.
I was once again struck by the fact the traditionally very serious-minded Discovery brand isn’t afraid to have so much fun with itself. This was especially evident with the Investigation Discovery portion of yesterday’s event, during which Henry Schleiff, Group President, Investigation Discovery, American Heroes Channel, Destination America and Discovery Fit & Health, took the stage dressed as a physician and played directly toward the success of an addictive subset of the true crime programs that have come to define the channel -- those with titles like “Wives with Knives” and “Fatal Vows” that spin around relationships gone murderously wrong. This increasingly vital little phenomenon may at first blush seem somewhat alienating, as it is miles away from what the public has come to understand the Discovery message to be. But its popularity is growing and breaking through into popular culture with a force most programmers would envy, providing much fodder for recurring sketches on “Saturday Night Live” and inspiring the instant-classic “murder porn” episode of “South Park.”
Not to be forgotten amid all the excitement, TLC’s homegrown superstars Honey Boo Boo and Mama June, both looking a bit glam from my seat directly below them, were also in the house, perched in a box from which they briefly provided some loud support for their network.