Cable TV pioneer: Curiosity drives Discovery

Phil Castle
Business Times

John Hendricks
John Hendricks

Cable television pioneer John Hendricks serves as chairman of a media company that reaches more than 1.5 billion subscribers around the globe.

But Hendricks insists Discovery Communications isn’t in the cable TV business. “We’re in the business of satisfying curiosity,” he said.

That distinction has guided Hendricks for 25 years as he turned his self-avowed obsession to bring documentary films to television into the Discovery Channel and subsequently the largest documentary entertainment company in the world.

That distinction continues to drive Hendricks in the creation of an ambitious new Discovery Channel series that not only will address some of life’s most fundamental questions, but also feature Mesa County in the process.

As part of the new weekly series “Curiosity: The Questions of Our Life,” retreats are planned for Gateway Canyons, the resort Hendricks developed southwest of Grand Junction. The retreats will bring together scientists, professors and other experts to discuss big questions — along with a limited number of participants who’ll interact with them in an informal vacation environment. Footage and interviews from the retreats will be used on the TV series.

Of all the places in the world that could have served as a venue for such gatherings, Hendricks choose Gateway Canyons. “That place in the world will be right here in Mesa County, Colorado,” he said during his keynote speech at the annual meeting of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.

he Gateway Canyons Resort located southwest of Grand Junction will serve as the venue for a series of retreats planned as part of the new “Curiosity” series on the Discovery Channel. The series, as well as the retreats, will address some of life’s most undamental questions. (Photo courtesy Gateway Canyons Resort)

Hendricks detailed plans for the “Curiosity” series and retreats as well as recalled his experiences in founding the Discovery Channel during his presentation at Two Rivers Convention Center.

The “Curiosity” series ranks as one of the most ambitious and expensive undertakings ever for Discovery Communications, Hendricks said. The series will address a single question in each of 12 one-hour episodes produced over the course of a year. A total of 60 episodes are planned over five years, although Hendricks said he hopes the series will continue on an indefinite basis.

“Curiosity” will take on a number of big questions. Are we alone in the universe? Why is cancer so hard to cure?  How will nanotechnology change the future?

In addition to the weekly cable television series, the “Curiosity” project will include supplemental educational content for schools that will be delivered to more than 1 million teachers through Discovery Education as well as in-depth Internet content for adults.

And then there will be retreats at Gateway Canyons for people who want intellectually enriching vacations. Hendricks founded what’s called the Experius Academy as a way to combine educational presentations and recreational activities in a resort setting.

The initiative is the latest for Hendricks, who founded the Discovery Channel in 1985.

Hendricks traces the origin of the company back to when he was a history student at the University of Alabama. As part of a work study job, he ordered documentary films for professors to show in classes. Hendricks said he asked himself: “Why can’t these be on television?”

Hendricks posed the same question to the general manager of a local cable television company only to find out federal regulations at the time allowed cable TV companies to only retransmit broadcast programming.

A change in the law subsequently allowed cable TV companies to broadcast their own programming, leading to the creation of Home

Box Office, ESPN and CNN, among others. “That started this revolution in television,”s Hendricks said.

Hendricks said the change also renewed his determination to bring documentary programming to television and he started seeking out investors to help finance his concept. Successful entrepreneurs discover that it takes passion, and then some, to realize their dreams, Hendricks said. “You have to go beyond passion, into semi-obsession.”

In addition to financial support, Hendricks said he found moral support in legendary TV newsman Walter Cronkite. Cronkite answered a letter with a telephone call and subsequent meeting, Hendricks said. Hendricks recalled how Cronkite told him “I know a few people” and agreed to write letters that helped secure additional funding to launch the Discovery Channel. Cronkite later produced a number of television series and special programs for both the Discovery Channel and TLC and was featured in an eight-part biographical series titled “Cronkite Remembers.”

Since the Discovery Channel was launched in 1985 with 156,000 subscribers in the United States, the operation since has grown like “wildfire,” Hendricks said. Discovery Communications networks now reach more homes than any other cable networks, he said.

Nonetheless, Hendricks doesn’t limit the definition of what’s now become a global operation to cable television. “We’re in the business of satisfying curiosity.”