Discovery Channel’s hit franchises, like “Gold Rush” and “Deadliest Catch,” featured plenty of blood and sweat. But where were the tears? That’s something Howard Lee immediately began asking, upon taking control of the network at the end of 2022.
After Lee was handed the keys to Discovery that December, “I spent my entire Christmas vacation devouring, scrutinizing, every single Discovery Channel show and familiarizing myself with it, like a fanboy. And looking at, of course, the ratings for each one and the budgets.”
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As head of TLC, Lee helped grow the network to new heights thanks to blockbuster franchises like “90 Day Fiancé,” where emotion was his bread and butter. But after his crash course in Discovery fare, Lee felt that the flagship network could do a better job of creating programming that its audience found viscerally enthralling.
“I do think that men have a lot of emotions as well,” says Lee, who is now president of Discovery Networks (which includes Discovery, Animal Planet, Science and Travel channels) and TLC. “It is the one thing I do carry over from my DNA of TLC. I asked everybody if we were avoiding it. I think men have a lot of feelings. And men cry. I’m not trying to make a sob story, but it’s OK to show that side of them and to reveal what happens if they fail. That’s what we’ve been recalibrating this entire year, the storytelling.”
But that’s not the only emotion that Lee felt was missing from the Discovery recipe. In aiming to grow the network’s audience, he’s also looking for more humor. “It still has to be incredibly entertaining — and fun,” he says. “I don’t know if a lot of people smile or laugh from the shows I was watching on Discovery Channel. And that was another factor — it’s OK, we can really laugh and have fun with everything we’re looking at here. The world is made up of humor, too, as well as tears and emotion.”
Discovery is already the top-rated network with men 18-49 and 25-54 (if news and sports aren’t included), buoyed by series like “Naked and Afraid,” “Deadliest Catch,” “Gold Rush,” “Expedition Unknown” and its signature “Shark Week” and “Puppy Bowl” events. Now, Lee is about to launch eight new series — repping 50 new hours of original content — in the first half of 2024.
Some of those new shows follow the Discovery model of rugged men and women in the outdoors. But Lee and his team also looked to expand the channel’s scope to include more everyday people pursuing their dreams. “They don’t always have to be out in the open, in water like ‘Deadliest Catch’ or out in gold mine rescue operations,” Lee says. “The one common thing I did notice the most when I was studying all the shows, I said, ‘this is fascinating, the stuff that works the most the Discovery Channel are people who are all so busy trying to succeed and make money.’ Aren’t we all? It clicked for me. There are other ways where everybody’s trying to aspire, beyond just looking for gold or looking for fish. We discussed how many pockets of America are uncovered, that people do not know.”
Among the freshman shows are “America’s Backyard Gold,” following ordinary people as they search for treasure buried behind their homes; “Big Little Brawlers,” centered on a little person wrestling league in Tennessee; clip show “Caught! Wild & Weird America”; found-footage show “Eye of the Storm,” chronicling natural disasters; the Sin City-set “Vegas Tow”; and an untitled expedition show about about a group of ill-prepared survivalists attempting to travel across South America.
And then there are two more series that Lee believes may join the ranks of Discovery’s staples: “Mud Wild,” about the extreme big-tire UTV mud racing circuit and its passionate, filthy characters, and “Hustlers Gamblers Crooks,” a thriller series about people who risk it all.
“Those are men and women who have all been trying to buck the system in order to make money, and maybe they’ve been caught,” Lee says. “But my God, it is so compelling how they went that route to try to make money. ‘Mud Wild,’ you’ve never seen so much mud in your life on a series. It’s everyday people from across America, and they have a real hobby of making their own vehicles, and pitting themselves against each other to try to win money.”
Lee concedes that launching so many new shows is ambitious, particularly in an age when cable outlets are struggling to stay relevant. Discovery and TLC continue to program a mostly full slate in primetime (rather than relying on marathons of the same shows).
“We haven’t given up,” he says. “Cable is very important to us. Linear channels are very important to us. But if you make great content, it will also work on streaming too. We think about it all.”
Meanwhile, Lee notes that Shark Week was up year-to-year in 2023, thanks in part to host Jason Momoa but also from buzzy fare like “Belly of the Beast: Feeding Frenzy” (in which a camera operator was placed inside a whale decoy) and “Cocaine Sharks.” And up next is the return of “Puppy Bowl” on Feb. 11, and simulcast across Animal Planet, Discovery, TBS, Tru TV, Max and Discovery+.
“It is the puppiest Puppy Bowl,” Lee says. “We have more puppies this year than we ever have before. But not just puppies. We also highlight senior shelter dogs, and puppies dogs with disabilities who should be rescued. That’s very important to me.” (So important, in fact, that Lee wound up adopting and bringing home a puppy from the Puppy Bowl shoot.)
Lee sets a high bar for his team, asking his staff to make sure their shows would fit right in at a movie theater screening. “I think it should be that good,” he says. “I know we are all nonfiction executors. But you have to think about the entertainment factor. Is it, ‘I’m not leaving my seat right now to go for bathroom break’?”
Lee is in the trenches with them, watching every frame and casting every show. “Every tape that we make for development, every first pilot episode, every first episode of returning series, I watch with the team,” he says. “We go frame by frame of what we like, what we don’t like from the storytelling. We need to treat this like a director would treat a scripted movie. We need to think hard about the editing, the rhythm, the pacing. What music are you even using here? What are we witnessing?”
To prove his point, Lee says he’ll sometimes walk by a production team member watching a cut of a show and crying. He’ll ask to see what they’re watching — and get teary-eyed as well.
“If I’m not feeling anything — if I’m not laughing, if I’m not crying or if my jaw’s not dropping and gasping — I probably don’t have a good show,” he says. “Any time you commission new shows or keep tinkering on or refreshing old shows, everything’s always a gamble. But you can’t be risk adverse.”
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