As the costs of news coverage continue to escalate, some American media organizations have joined forces on various projects over the years. For example, the NBC television network has worked with People magazine and the Discovery Communications network on news magazine programming. Now, Discovery Communications has gone one step further: joining with the New York Times newspaper to start a new cable channel, reaching millions of viewers worldwide.
The launch of the new Discovery Times channel couldn't have come at a more auspicious time: just five days after the start of the war with Iraq. John Hendricks, founder and chairman of the Discovery Communications cable television network, told VOA the timing was purely coincidental, but the war provided a strong subject for the type of documentary programming on the new channel. "When we can provide in-depth context for an issue that the world is focused on, and go beyond the seven-minute segment you typically see on a news magazine show on the networks," he said. "When you can set aside an hour, two hours, even three hours to tackle a topic, consumers really welcome that. That was the genesis of the idea to work with an established news gathering organization like the New York Times, to partner on a new channel."
From its new headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, the Discovery TV channels which specialize in nature, news, health, travel and many other topics, are available in as many as 152 countries, reaching more than 180 million subscribers in 33 languages. Its partner in the new channel, The New York Times, is often regarded as America's premiere newspaper and part of a three billion plus media company that also publishes the Boston Globe and 16 other newspapers. Discovery chairman Hendricks says the new cable channel provides a good journalistic partnership. "It allows organizations with different strengths like the New York Times with a worldwide news gathering team with their great writers, editorial writers and marry that with the talents we have in television and to be able to distribute that kind of content. For us, it was a perfect marriage," he said.
The logistics of coordinating the two giant media organizations for joint programs are a challenge, as general manager of the Discovery Times Channel, Vivian Schiller, explains. "Well, I live on the [airplane] shuttle, between Washington and New York, much to the chagrin of my family," she said. "We do have a dedicated network staff that specifically works on that channel. We work hand-in-glove [closely] with both parent companies. At the New York Times, we're entrenched in the newsroom we're working with the reporters and editors to try to infuse the [channel]. It's not just about trying to put New York Times reporters on the air. It's about infusing the network with the sensibilities and journalistic standards of the New York Times, along with Discovery, which has had a long tradition of really dynamic, story driven, character driven documentaries. We're trying to bring together the journalism and news gathering of the New York Times with the visual, dynamic presentation that Discovery is so known for."
Vivian Schiller says that among the first documentaries featured on the Discovery Times channel was one about al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, co-produced with best selling author Peter Bergen. "He worked very closely with New York Times reporters all over the world to look where Al Qaeda came from and how it's evolving in a post 9-11 environment to continue their activities," said Ms. Schiller. "In the second hour was something very different: a personal, intimate look at Afghan children in a Pakistani refugee camp and the impact that the events - that we in this country read as headlines over the last several years - have had on a personal level on these children. It was done by a young Pakistani filmmaker, who got to know these children. It really gives you insights and fulfills the promise of what we're trying to achieve to put a human face, history and context on news events."
And with the Iraq war as the dominating news subject, Discovery chairman John Hendricks says the new channel had several programs about the war's leading players. "The other day, we had a special on the real Saddam," he said. "We had a special on understanding Iraq. That's our goal: to have programs on Discovery Times that really focus on issues the world is confronting."
The Discovery Times channel also has a nightly feature called Page One, which presents a rundown of the New York Times' front page.
But not all of the programs on Discovery Times will be rooted in hard news, as manager Vivian Schiller explains. "One of our documentaries is about traffic: why it's so hard to get from point A to point B, something that affects just about everyone in this country," she said. "In future months, we'll be examining everything from the business of Hollywood, inside the White House, programming on Korea, education and religion."
The new joint effort between the New York Times and Discovery Communications will also offer opportunities for the companies to cross-promote each other's work. But Ms. Schiller says the major motivation of the joint media programming is helping each other become even better. "Certainly there have been a lot of media mergers," explained Ms. Schiller. "This is not a merger; it's a joint venture. It's a different animal and it's been remarkable to me how seamlessly the two companies have worked together and [have] bridged two companies in two cities. One is a news organization, one a television organization. But the sensibilities and values of the companies are so similar. And we both believe in this venture. This is really something different than what anybody else has ever tried before. So far, it's been going really well."