Discovery Communications covers a lot of territory, from Discovery Channel to TLC to Animal Planet to Travel Channel and an endless array of digital networks. So it shouldn't be surprising that its public-interest initiatives cover a lot of ground—pretty much the entire world.
"From the beginning, part of our mission was about not just worrying about the bottom line," says spokesman David Levy. While the company is highly profitable, its ethos has "always been about giving back and empowering the community. We have a responsibility and an opportunity."
He says the company culture is deeply held. A recent internal survey cited Discovery's impact on "ordinary citizens" as the No. 1 reason for working there. Discovery's brand is intertwined in this mission, and all of its public-service programs "take the tools of the information age and help people explore their world."
Sure, each channel has its own pet projects, such as Animal Planet's recent partnership with animal-behaviorist Jane Goodall to develop programming about the plight of great apes or its annual televising of the Humane Society's Genesis Awards. But the company's biggest projects are centrally administered. "Our multiyear, multimillion-dollar commitments differentiate us from other companies," Levy says. (Many of the overall programs bear the Discovery Channel name because it is the flagship brand.)
The Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership takes that mission literally, bringing televisions, VCRs and other American "basics" to countries around the world. These true luxuries are used to create learning centers, teaching community residents about everything from crop fertilization to AIDS prevention to electron movement to geography.
In some African communities, because there is no electricity, Discovery must provide solar panels or wind-powered energy to work the machines. It also trains teachers on how to use the devices as teaching tools.
"This particular program is not about branding at all," Levy says. "It is just about helping people improve their lives." (No effort at commercial distribution of Discovery is tied in.)
More important than any individual facts learned in a specific lesson is the fact that a whole new world opens up for students in countries like Uganda or Zimbabwe. Not only do they see their first TVs, but on the screens they get their first glimpses of sharks or volcanoes. "It blows their minds," says Levy. "It connects their village to the larger planet in a way they had barely comprehended."
Discovery also implements numerous long-term programs that are closely tied in with its mission, like the $10 million, 10-year effort to build a new, more powerful telescope for the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.
It also funds the ParkDocs Project, which creates new documentaries used at national parks. Discovery made and donated a new video for Yosemite National Park. None too soon either: The old one was hosted by the late Burgess Meredith and produced back in 1971. Now, that's
filling a need.