Discovery to spend $65m. on series meant for HDTV

MUMBAI: Looking ahead to the future, Discovery channel is all set to spend $65 million over the next five years on Atlas HD, an ambitious series of 30 two-hour, documentary specials on countries created specifically for high definition television. The first episode on India is scheduled to air on Discovery and its HD service in 2005.

GIANT MONSTERS: Jeff Corwin's new special on Animal Planet.

This is all part of Discovery founder chairman John Hendricks' plan to give his network a much higher profile. Hendricks has already started America's first 24-hour HDTV subscription service, which provides a variety of Discovery programming in high definition for $8 a month.

Discovery, which is valued by the Wall Street Journal at between $10 billion and $20 billion, has seen earnings expanding 20 per cent annually and views fast-growing markets like India, China and Mexico as key ingredients of its growth recipe, according to information provided by the company.

It also includes a growing roster of fledgling, niche networks available on digital cable. Discovery has also flagged off a chain of 154 retail stores.

Over the next five years, Hendricks plans to spend nearly $1 billion on new, original programming, part of a bid to make the channels more regular viewing destinations than channel-surfing rest stops. He also intends to relaunch the digital channel Discovery Civilization as Discovery Times next month , the result of a $100 million partnership with the New York Times that will feature the newspaper's reporters and columnists in shows that examine issues of the day.

Hendricks will soon announce an agreement to produce, air and release feature-length documentaries by major directors such as Michael Apted, Barbara Kopple and DA Pennebaker as well as start airing a news-oriented documentary on Discovery each month.

Company officials say the challenge before Discovery right now is to get viewers to think that it is more than a nature channel. Viewership has slowly but steadily dropped over the past year, and though its costly, one-time productions, like Blue Planet and James Cameron's Bismarck, continue to draw millions of viewers, the channel has always had trouble holding an audience from one show to the next.

One issue that Discovery doesn't worry too much about is ratings. Total audiences should keep growing is the bottom line. It is with just such growth that Discovery has recently been able to sell big advertisers like Procter & Gamble, General Motors and Taco Bell on the kind of multichannel deals previously reserved for big players like Viacom, News Corp. and Disney. "We've got all the elements in place, and I think we're ahead of the game," Hendricks is quoted as saying.

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