Discovery re-brands Science Channel into a mix of both fact and fiction

Network hopes to reach more viewers with new name, logo and star power

  • Morgan Freeman hosts "Through the Wormhole," one of the programs on Discovery's revamped Science.
Morgan Freeman hosts "Through the Wormhole," one… (Handout photo )
April 09, 2011|By Sam Sessa, The Baltimore Sun

Angling for a larger audience with a mix of fact and fiction, Maryland-based Discovery Communications is retooling its Science Channel, changing the name and logo and doubling down on new shows with star hosts.

Starting June 8, the Science Channel will drop the 'channel' and become Science. The move comes after it has recently begun airing fact-based shows ("Through the Wormhole" starring Morgan Freeman) alongside science-fiction ("Firefly") and humor ("An Idiot Abroad" with Ricky Gervais). Debbie Adler Myers, Science's executive vice president and general manager, calls the new programming "science-faction," and hopes it will make the network more appetizing to new viewers.

The changes seem designed to make the cable channel, ranked 58th overall, less like the National Geographic Channel and more like the Syfy Channel, which is in the top 20.

"We're taking science and giving it a fresh coat of paint," Myers said. "It's not always voice-of-god documentaries. It's about the passion of individuals, using science fiction and humor to bring this to life for a larger audience."

Myers began phasing in the new shows last year, and already, they've given the channel a boost. Although still relatively low compared with Discovery Communications' other properties like Discovery Channel and TLC, Science's ratings have been rising by double digits for the past 16 months, she said.

When "Through the Wormhole" debuted last June, it was the channel's highest-rated show to date — until "An Idiot Abroad" launched. And last week, Myers learned they'd won the network's first Peabody Award, for "Wonders of the Solar System," a show they co-produced with the BBC.

"Our programming has made science more alive," said Myers, who has been general manager for about three years. "It's not a bunch of people in lab coats in a laboratory. It's the essence of asking killer questions that make you think about the world and take you out from there."

Looking to capitalize on the success of Freeman's show, Science tapped director Ridley Scott ("Alien," "Blade Runner") to executive produce and host a series of hourlong specials called "The Prophets of Science." The show highlights iconic science fiction personalities, from writers to directors, and examines how their work inspired scientific advances.

Also on tap is a series of shows in the vein of the cult hit "Punkin Chunkin" (where people built contraptions to hurl pumpkins the farthest) and "Large, Dangerous Rocket Ships" (basically the model rocket hobby on steroids). Science is teeing up programs involving flying anvils and killer robots, according to Myers.

"It's basically nerds gone wild," Myers said.

Enlisting hosts with household names is one way Science wants to grab attention, but Myers stresses that the personalities have to be a good fit for the network. On "Through the Wormhole," Freeman tackles issues like extra-terrestrials, God and black holes in his calm, reassuring baritone. Gervais dispatches his friend Karl Pilkington to explore the wonders of the world in "An Idiot Abroad," a show which draws the line between humor and comedy, Myers said.

"We look for personalities that can help bring us that wider audience, but they have to have a genuine passion in science," Myers said. "If their hair isn't on fire about it — because the audience can smell whether they love it or not — then we don't go after them."

Myers sees herself as the ideal type of person Science wants to reach. They don't have to be nerds; they just have to be curious.

"I was not at all an A student in science," she said. "I wasn't a B student. One semester, I wasn't a C student. But I loved to question. I would drive people crazy with my questions. … Our job is to keep the core [audience], grow the edges, and make science a household thing."

In the last year, the network has tried to shed its image as just a television channel, which is one of the main reasons the Science Channel became Science. They've tapped into social media: The night "An Idiot Abroad" premiered, it was the No. 1 trending TV show on Google, Myers said. They've held marathons with live Twitter feeds, and launched a mobile app. SCIENCE also wants viewers to take pictures from their daily lives, geo-map them, and send them to experts who can discuss it with them.

With the new name comes a futuristic new logo, Morph, which changes shapes and textures before settling on a smooth, black orb vaguely reminiscent of a guitar pick.

"We wanted a logo that wasn't just the periodic table," Myers said. "We wanted to show you the essence of that ever-changing nature of science. It never sits still."

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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