As Discovery celebrates its 20th anniversary, its programming head tells Robert Shepherd about how it is reaping the rewards of its PSB values and getting the right on-screen talent.

Discovery Channel hasn’t done badly since it went international in 1989.

After a modest introduction to UK homes via the now defunct BSB squarial, 20 years on - the channel celebrates its anniversary later this month - pay-TV viewers can access 12 Discovery UK channels and 3,000 hours of content a year.

But its biggest achievement, according to Discovery Networks UK senior vice-president of programming Dan Korn, is that, for two decades, Discovery’s flagship channel has maintained its position as the number one digital factual channel in the UK.

“Discovery Channel UK, rebranded in February this year, is the single biggest digital factual channel, with 18% share of the sector [in pay-TV homes among adults], insists Korn. And the factual portfolio represents more than 42% of the total documentary sector on the Sky EPG. To be number one from the outset is a pioneering move, and staying there for over two decades is a remarkable achievement.”

For this keen triathlete and charming self-confessed workaholic, it’s not surprising that remaining in pole position is important to him.

But, says Korn, he doesn’t think Discovery always gets the recognition it deserves - and thinks it may have something to do with the fact that many still see it as a US broadcaster (Discovery Communications, and sister channel Discovery US, launched Stateside in 1985).

“If something has been on the landscape for years, it is always viewed as doing the same thing well. That’s why originating programming locally is so important to us,” he says.

However, he is keen to point out that the relationship between US and UK content has underpinned the channel’s success to date.

“In terms of shows, we have been successful in originating programming franchises that mix well with our big American hits. For example, we created car show Chop Shop in the UK, which combines successfully in the schedule with American Chopper.”

He thinks Discovery has also been good at originating programmes or series that are brand-defining. “When I first arrived we produced a two-hour drama on Nostradamus, and last year we made the Big Experiment with Outline Productions. To do these things shows a real sense of ambition.”

Korn started at Discovery four years ago, brought in by then head of programming Jill Offman as head of production. Since then he has undergone a meteoric rise, moving up to head of factual and then head of programming for the 12-strong portfolio.

He will see his channel remit increase to 13 once Discovery launches its first free-to-air channel, Quest, on Freeview next month.

However, as Discovery is about to go into previously uncharted waters - the free-to-air-space - the network has been tight-lipped on its plans for Quest. So too is Korn.

“The most important thing is we have to be careful due to our relationship with Sky,” he says. “Pay-TV drives us. Every business looks for opportunities to grow and we have seen a way of doing that on Freeview. But it’s not at the expense of our pay-TV business. That is core to what we do. Quest is not meant to be a Discovery Channel offshoot and we are programming it as a different beast.”

So what sorts of shows is Korn looking for? “The aim is to continue to be known for quality programming [across the family of channels]. That is key to everything we do,” he says. He wants 360-degree commissions (“you’d be mad not to”) and is keen to get major one-offs such as the 2005 Werner Herzog doc Grizzly Man because they are “vital to the schedule”.

He also wants shows that travel internationally, such as Serial Killers: Crimes That Shook the World, which is playing well on ID in the US.

However, Korn is also keen on the more traditional, celebrity-led shows - but read on before you start pitching him any old name. “‘Celebrity’ is a word to use carefully,” he says. “The best way to describe it is presenters with a recognition factor and a particular passion. For example, Robert Llewellyn from Wag TV’s How Do They Do It? is presenting an anniversary show for us, Top 20 Ultimate Discovery, that looks back at our programming over the past two decades.”

The problem, says Korn, is that words such as ‘experiential’ and ‘immersive’ are so overused in commissioning. But what he ultimately wants are shows “where you are at the heart of the action, as in Whale Wars”.

He cites Sky 1’s Ross Kemp in Afghanistan and Five’s Extreme Fishing with Robson Green as shows he would like to have on his books, but he is keen to point out he doesn’t want to be offered celebrities for the sake of it. “Passion and commitment is as important as the celebrity factor. I don’t want anything contrived.”

He also doesn’t want polemics and points to film-maker Martin Durkin’s controversial 2007 Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle as an example.

“We would not have commissioned it,” he says. “Durkin is a treasure in the production community, he speaks his mind and it’s important to have people like that. The show was an ideal fit for Channel 4 because it set out to be controversial and counter-intuitive and had an agenda. But we want to present something that allows people to make up their mind.”

The factual space is a crowded one with the likes of UKTV, History and Nat Geo all wanting a piece of the same pie. So how does he rate his competitors? “History is our nearest competitor and Nat Geo has had a relatively good start to the year. But I don’t think either has the consistency and quality of output that we do.”

Discovery content is by its nature informative, and the broadcaster often finds itself falling under the PSB banner by default.

Korn thinks this has helped raise awareness of the channel. “If you if you look at the latest Ofcom survey, when people talk about PSB they talk about Discovery. They almost assume that we have a public service remit. It’s an irony really because we don’t, but much of what we do can be defined as that because PSB and Discovery have the same DNA.”

Whether Discovery’s PSB content is coincidental or not, Korn wants to get in on the action if he can. “While Discovery is readily identified with PSB values, there is a very strong argument for it to qualify for contestable funding - if a pot were to be made available.”

20 years of Discovery

  • 1989 Discovery Networks International launches Discovery Channel in the UK in April

  • 1994 TLC launches in the UK (later Discovery Real Time)

  • 1997 Science launches (laterDiscovery Science)

  • 1998 Animal Planet launches

  • 1999 Discovery Civilisation launches (later Discovery Knowledge)

  • 2000 Discovery Wings launches in February (later Discovery Turbo); Discovery Travel & Adventure launches in October (later
    Discovery Travel & Living); Discovery Health launches in July (later Discovery Home & Health)

  • 2005 Real Time Extra launches, rebranded as Discovery Shed in March 2009

  • 2006 Discovery HD launches in UK

  • 2008 DMAX UK launches

  • 2009 Investigation Discovery launches in January; Quest to launch in May