Peering at the sharp, crystal-clear images of an episode of Insecticide on a massive, 60-in. plasma high-definition TV (HDTV), John Hendricks looks for all the world like a kid with a bug under a microscope. Except in this case, the kid is 50 years old, and the "microscope" is his fast-growing, unlikely cable empire, Discovery Communications.
If you've done any channel surfing over the past two decades, you've probably encountered Hendricks' pioneering brand of reality TV (he prefers the term real-world TV). Once an odd little documentary network making an occasional wave with shows like Shark Week, Hendricks' flagship Discovery Channel reaches 231 million homes in 155 countries and has become one of the most respected, popular cable channels around--and a powerful media brand whose global reach is matched only by the likes of MTV and CNN. It is also the foundation of a privately owned cable empire that generates $2 billion a year in revenue and includes channels like TLC (formally the Learning Channel), with its hit show Trading Spaces; Animal Planet, featuring The Crocodile Hunter; the Travel Channel; and Discovery Health, whose weight-loss face-off Body Challenge has become a hit.
To anyone who remembers the pre-cable heyday of National Geographic documentaries or Wild Kingdom (which now airs on Animal Planet) on broadcast TV, it may seem surprising that Discovery has so quietly become a cable powerhouse. That may just be a consequence of a 500-channel universe. But now that cable is entering the digital age, Hendricks is hoping to give Discovery a much higher profile. He has already started the nation's first 24-hour HDTV subscription service, which provides a variety of Discovery programming in high definition for $8 a month. And he will soon announce plans to spend $65 million over five years on Atlas HD, an ambitious series of 30 two-hour, high-definition documentary specials on countries. The first episode, on India, is scheduled to air on Discovery and its HD service in 2005.
Considering that the cable-TV industry is just emerging from an advertising slump and that only a few hundred thousand cable viewers tune in to HDTV, it's a risky bet. But it's the kind that Hendricks has always relished making. A laid-back, soft-spoken Southerner who first became interested in documentaries when ordering them for his professors at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, Hendricks "is a schoolteacher at heart," says John Malone, chairman of Liberty Media, a principal shareholder of Discovery, along with Cox Communications and Advance/Newhouse Communications. "Like Ted Turner," Malone says, "Hendricks has a childlike enthusiasm about new ideas that is infectious." (His latest passions include the Women's United Soccer Association, a league he co-founded, and the small plane he pilots above his ranch in western Colorado.)