Discovery Channel gets a new adventurer

Josh Bernstein and the resurgent cable network look like a good fit

March 05, 2007|By Matea Gold | Matea Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- In the last three years, Josh Bernstein rode horses across the Mongolian steppe with nomads, traveled deep into the Amazon to seek out a remote tribe and slept in an igloo on an Austrian glacier to test the conditions faced by Neolithic cavemen.

Now he's venturing into another new territory: the Silver Spring-based Discovery Channel, a television network in the midst of its own evolution.

Last week, the cable channel plucked Bernstein away from rival network the History Channel, where he has drawn a following as the host of the popular Digging for the Truth series. In that role, the anthropologist and survival expert left almost no region of the world unexplored as he sought to bring the stories of ancient cultures to life through modern-day adventures.

But as much as he enjoyed the gig, Bernstein said he was starting to feel somewhat restricted at the History Channel.

"There's just a limiting factor given that the network focuses on the history of things," he said. "You're always looking at the past, and my interests are much broader than that."

So when Discovery offered Bernstein a multiyear deal to develop his own series and specials about such topics as anthropology and environmentalism, "it was actually a pretty easy decision," the 36-year-old said.

Bernstein - who splits his time between Manhattan and a yurt in Southern Utah when he is not on the road - officially joins the network in April. Discovery executives are gleeful about landing him, counting on the wilderness educator to help accelerate the recent resurgence at the cable network, which is recovering from a ratings slump earlier this decade.

Viewership was up 25 percent in prime time last year and continued to grow in January, a trend network officials attribute in large part to a renewed focus on science, knowledge and exploration-related programs.

It's an approach championed by David Zaslav, the new president and chief executive of the channel's parent corporation, Discovery Communications Inc.

Discovery's top draws now include Deadliest Catch, about the adventures of crab fishermen in the Bering Sea, and Mythbusters, which uses science to debunk urban legends. On Sunday, the channel ran a documentary asserting that an ancient tomb may have held the remains of Jesus and his family.

Zaslav wasted no time in shaking things up at Discovery Communications, which operates more than 100 networks around the world, including 15 U.S. channels, such as Animal Planet and the Travel Channel. Just weeks after his arrival, he streamlined the executive structure, triggering the departure of several top officials, including Billy Campbell, the former president of Discovery Networks U.S., a one-time candidate for the company's top job.

The new chief executive said he's seeking to create a "lean and empowered culture" to best identify original content. Hiring talent such as Bernstein is a key part of that equation.

The outdoorsman "is really right on brand for us," Zaslav said. "He has a real credibility with viewers directly in our sweet spot."

Jane Root, president and general manager of Discovery Channel and the Science Channel, said that "right now we're in a time when it's sexy to be smart. Josh is an absolute example of that."

Discovery executives are still working to develop the program that will be his main vehicle at the network, but they already have plans for him to do a limited series this year with Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, that will focus on that country's ancient treasures.

"You look at what Discovery did with someone like Steve Irwin - he was someone who was bigger than one show, who represented ecology and environmentalism," said Jeff Has- ler, the network's head of development. "That's how I view Josh."

Bernstein said he's interested in doing a show with a strong environmental bent, a passion of his since high school, when he started an environmental awareness club at his private New York school.

He practices this philosophy as the chief executive of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, or BOSS, which he has run for the last decade. Instructors lead students on excursions through the desert and canyons of Southern Utah without such gear as tents, stoves or toilet paper.

"Leaves, rocks, smooth stones - there are a lot of ways," he said. "We turn the clock back 10,000 years to show you how traditional cultures, ancient peoples lived in harmony with the Earth."

When he's at the school, Bernstein lives in a 21-foot-wide yurt in the small town of Boulder, Utah, and drives an Australian Land Cruiser that runs on used vegetable oil.

After graduating from Cornell University with a double major in anthropology and psychology, Bernstein - whose father was Israeli - spent a year at Jerusalem's Pardes Institute, studying Jewish history and mysticism. He considered entering rabbinical school but couldn't stand the idea of spending years indoors.

Matea Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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