For Discovery Founder Hendricks, A New Curious Turn To Streaming Video

There’s a vast Internet universe of knowledge, and then there's online video. I’d bet if you asked 100 people to use descriptors to label it, 90 of them would tell you it’s just a lot of stupid stuff.  Unfair it might be, but ten years of YouTube user generated content leaves an impression.

Good luck the Hendricks family, then! John Hendricks, who was the original brain behind the Discovery Channel which he founded in 1985, just launched CuriosityStream, an online video site filled with nature, science, tech and history, without advertising. It costs $2.99 a month in SD (or $5.99 in HD) and it’s being positioned as a logical non-fiction add-on for Netflix subscribers.

Hendricks’ daughter,Elizabeth Hendricks North, is president of the Curiosity Project; son-in-law Peter North is executive vice president for digital operations; and son Andrew Hendricks will work developing 4K original video for the Website.

Television never had any problem living down to its nickname--The Idiot Box--but Discovery Communications’ networks, like a few others--A&E, Bravo, History, for example-- had loftier ideals. Once.

So maybe CuriosityStream is something like back to the future. So far, if online video content providers are becoming a substitute for cable offerings, so far that’s mostly been only about non-fiction fare.

“My expectation is that CuriosityStream will appeal to about 25% of the broadband households that have subscription video services,” Hendricks explained in an email back and forth we had.  “If in 5-10 years, a service with near universal appeal among broadband households that desire entertainment, like Netflix, has a global subscription base of 80-100 million SVOD households, I would hope we would be close to having 20-25 million subscribers.. That is our long-term goal.  In this start-up business. We are thinking growth over decades, not years.”

I wondered if, given Discovery’s ad-supported success, CuriosityStream wouldn’t allow the kind of subdued advertising support, like PBS does on-air, especially because streaming video still seems to lack lots of substantial premium sites that also attract upscale, wealthier consumers. Those would seem to be CuriosityStream’s natural base.

“No, we will not have advertising nor any type of sponsorships that in any way interrupt the flow of our content,” Hendricks responded. “We believe that a substantial segment of the curious population will be interested in paying for instant access to great factual content that is free of commercial interruptions.”

I took a swipe at the current-day Discovery suite of channels,most of which now seem more intent on catering to the Honey Boo-Boobs of the world than people with IQs higher than the temperature on a very hot day in the desert.

Hendricks, who until recently was still Discovery’s board, didn’t take the bait, but in a way he described the mentality that forces cable networks to dumb down to the point that Discovery’s TLC no longer want to acknowledge those initials (once?) stood for The Learning Channel.  

Discovery ain’t what it used to be. If Discovery was still like Discovery once was, it would seem CuriosityStream wouldn’t stand a chance, I posited to Hendricks.  

“Discovery has great content that is popular worldwide,” he replied, referencing its three billion subscribers in 220 countries. “I remain a bullish shareholder of Discovery due to its great international expansion opportunities, its ownership of content rights that can play on all current and future platforms, and its superb management team led by David Zaslav.”  

But then he gave me what seemed to be a lesson in commercial television’s facts of life.  

“I have learned in my career,” he wrote, “that certain factual content which dives deeply into fields like science, technology, and history for the benefit of lifelong learners is difficult to sustain on advertising revenues driven by ratings pressure.  My longtime dream has been to use advanced media, like the streaming Internet video platform, to serve the viewing desires of the lifelong curious.  

“I believe educational content, like nonfiction books, is most successful when supported by direct consumer purchases and subscriptions and thereby free of advertising.  Imagine if the only books one could buy were those containing advertising.  We would only have books having widespread, general appeal...and not the astounding choice of books that we now have that are devoted to every topic under the sun.”

CuriosityStream begins with about 1,000 titles, many of them short videos and others from original commissions to producers from the BBC and NHK among others. A 4K menu of content is scheduled to start later this year.

Its signature series, right now, is probably “Destination Pluto,” an eight-parter that follows the last eight months of the decade since the launch of the space probe in 2006 to up-to-minute coverage of as scientists prep camera and instruments for the scheduled July landing on Pluto.

I asked Hendricks if working in the online space doesn’t remind him of how the cable business was a few decades ago.

“The streaming platform is the third evolution of television,” he began. “Like the cable platform which was driven by HBO and its great movie offerings, the streaming platform was driven by Netflix and its abundant offerings of movies.  And just like HBO was initially followed by channels largely devoted to a replay of broadcast TV hits (USA and TBS), Netflix was followed by Hulu with its vast array of hit TV shows on its menu.  Now, the next big categories of content (like factual programming in science, history, and civilization) will be organized on streaming menus by the next generation of media brands.”

Hendricks wants to be there, and expects to be “among the leading 5-7 streaming services in this next evolution of television.” CuriosityStream probably will be, too. Hendricks is good proof of the theory of evolution.

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