An Odyssey Of Discovery

Big Dreams, No Doubts

John Hendricks' daring tale of Discovery

Cover Story

February 27, 2000|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff

NEW YORK -- John Hendricks, the 47-year-old founder of the Discovery Channel, walks briskly toward the Rose Room at the Plaza Hotel, where he will unveil his bid for a piece of the Internet. For months this soft-spoken chief executive with the schoolboy haircut has been possessed by the idea. For years he has rehearsed for the questions he's about to be asked. Now, he checks to be sure someone has made handouts of his slide show.

They explain why his Maryland-based cable programming giant intends to invest $500 million in a medium seemingly foreign to television documentaries. Like a lot of executives, Hendricks awoke weeks earlier to the surprise of the America Online-Time-Warner merger plan, a move that could make the new media Goliath the Web's dominant force. But his announcement here is not a reaction to that news. Instead, it is the fruit of an inquisitive entrepreneur's single-minded obsession.

Skepticism abounds. Why does a highbrow company like Discovery want to sell stock quotes and sports scores? Will video technology ever be good enough to bring Discovery's trademark documentaries to the Internet?

OK, so Hendricks has consistently been out front with ideas. So in 14 years he built a company twice the size of United Airlines and as trusted by the public as Crayola, Kodak and Hallmark. The private investors who have bet on Hendricks have been grandly rewarded. And the rest of us got quality TV.

But with media titans battling to control content on this hot new toy, some people can't help wondering: Is Hendricks too late?

They can wonder. He's got a plane to catch, places to be, like on the sideline at his teen-age daughter's soccer match in Montgomery County, or in the library of his Potomac home with his latest, still under-wraps obsession -- a professional women's soccer league.

"The beginning," Hendricks says assuredly, "is always full of people who are doubters."

Uncrushable enthusiasm

Few could predict a nice guy like John S. Hendricks would get so far in the cutthroat cable business. Braggarts, bullies and self-styled cable cowboys ride herd on the information highways, yet Hendricks stands apart, molding his company by remaining true to himself. They call him the white hat.

Being an outsider was an asset from the start. In the early 1980s, nobody inside the television industry would have persisted with a cable network devoted to documentaries; on the contrary, the networks were taking documentaries off the air.

The idea for the Discovery Channel stemmed from his own disenchantment with television. It helped that he was familiar with the huge stock of film going wanting in the warehouses of TimeLife, Encyclopedia Britannica and the British Broadcasting Corporation. In 1972 at the University of Alabama in Huntsville where he was a student, Hendricks ordered documentaries from such companies for his history professors. One day he brought home a McCarthy-era film for his father, who was recuperating from a heart attack. "Why can't you broadcast documentaries on Sundays?" he asked local stations.

Three years later, Hendricks read about the birth of Home Box Office. "Movies on cable," he thought. "What's next? Sports, news, maybe even documentaries." There followed ESPN and CNN. When a cable channel devoted to music, MTV, aired in 1982, Hendricks recalls, "I said, 'Wait a minute!' This is when I got obsessed" with an all-documentary channel.

Was he the only person, he wondered, who watched "Nova" and National Geographic specials on animals? Who rushed home to catch Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series? His study of Nielsen surveys assured him he was not unique.

By late 1983, he was showing his business plan to investors. The following year he scoured the country five days a week for money. His impassioned plea for quality programming captivated venture capitalists, but nobody would commit.

To investors, Hendricks appeared naive, if well-spoken -- a hick from Alabama who didn't talk much dollars and cents. The more they looked into it, the more unrealistic it seemed. But each time they put up a roadblock, Hendricks jumped it.

Then, in mid-1984, CBS dropped "Universe," the weekly science show hosted by Hendricks' childhood idol, Walter Cronkite. According to rumors, it had been canceled for poor ratings. How would an all-documentary channel ever succeed, investors asked?

Chagrined, Hendricks phoned Cron-kite. He would never forget the secretary who listened to his plea for help. Two days later, the veteran TV anchor returned his call. "He was so encouraging," Hendricks says now. "He asked me, 'Won't you come to New York to discuss this?' "

A day later, he showed up at Cronkite's office. The newsman not only endorsed Hendricks' plan, he confirmed that Americans truly did love documentaries. "Universe," it turned out, was the most popular show on television. The problem was, viewers didn't stay tuned in afterward, and CBS' prime time ratings dropped behind those of the other two networks.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.