If you think Discovery Channel has strayed from its original highbrow mission to the boys-with-big-motorcycles, wait until Jane Root arrives.
In her most recent gig, she filled once-artsy BBC2 with broad, younger, hipper entertainment. Now Discovery Networks President Billy Campbell wants the Root touch. This week, he's expected to anoint Root, dubbed the "stealth bomber of British TV," to head his cornerstone property, the 89 million-subscriber Discovery Channel.
The network's current chief, Executive Vice President and General Manager Clark Bunting, is slated to step up into a new executive vice president slot, taking charge of the 11 smaller networks, from Animal Planet and Travel Channel to the tiny Discovery Home Channel. Campbell will retain control of his two biggest properties, Discovery and TLC, but the Bunting promotion will shrink the number of Campbell's direct reports from 19 to fewer than 10.
The moves cap Campbell's two-year campaign to overhaul Discovery and its siblings, which were either maturing Nielsen stalls or struggling startups. Campbell has pushed hard to broaden his base from sleepy nature and history documentaries to feel-good reality shows like Discovery's high-octane car-makeover show Monster Garage
and Travel Channel's addicting World Poker Tour.
While he's partial to stunts to keep favorites like Trading Spaces
fresh, he's always hunting for new stars to pop on screen, like Animal Planet's snake expert Austin Stevens, possibly the next Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter).
But Campbell hasn't abandoned Discovery's traditional focus, continuing to produce specials like Nefertiti Revealed
and Lost City of Pompeii.
His goal is twofold: to jazz up programming with more entertainment and identifiable personalities and to lessen the semi-anonymous narrators. "Everyone is trying to mimic what we're doing," he notes. He would not, however, comment on the management shuffle.
Root is expected to do for Discovery what she did for BBC2: add sizzle. The network had long been the staid, higher-brow sibling to the BBC. It skewed too old and too male for a commercial-free network.
As an independent producer, Root had supplied several programs to commercial broadcaster Channel 4. So when the BBC tapped her, she went broad—and garnered kudos on both sides of the Atlantic. She added such hits as game show The Weakest Link, acclaimed drama The Office, and makeover What Not To Wear. All have been adapted and Americanized by U.S. networks (including TLC).
That, of course, put her at the center of the perennial fight public broadcasters face. Was BBC2 broadening by dumbing down? Root chose to have it both ways: programming provocative and
thoughtful shows. She created a sensation with The Big Read,
essentially a nationwide contest to pick Britain's favorite book (the winner: Lord of the Rings). Another success was Restoration, where viewers vote on how great buildings around England should be restored.
"She will do terrific things at Discovery," predicts Michael Jackson, chairman of Universal Television Group and a onetime controller of BBC and BBC2. "She's a real populist but with a definite edge. Her shows always have a point of view."
"She flies under the radar," adds Randy Barbato, co-owner of independent production company World of Wonder, "and lands these great shows."