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The 'Old Grey Lady' Is Ready For Her Close-Up: A Conversation with the Executives Behind Discovery Times Channel

By Barbara Rick

From 'Terror's Children.' Courtesy of Discovery Times Channel. Right: Vivian Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of Discovery Times Channel.

This spring, The New York Times Company and Discovery Communications, Inc. launched a new venture: Discovery Times Channel. It seems a natural match—one that marries the editorial prowess of the Times with the visual abilities and experience of Discovery. "Its principal purpose is to extend the journalistic vision, tone, approach of The New York Times to television," according to Michael Oreskes, assistant managing editor and director of electronic news for The New York Times Vivian Schiller is the senior vice president and general manager of the Discovery Times Channel. The following are excerpts from a conversation with Oreskes and Schiller about the mission and scope of the new enterprise.


Explain how all this came together.

Michael Oreskes: Over the last few years, we've adopted a pretty aggressive approach to building outlets for our journalism so that we reach people beyond just the newspaper. New York Times Television is the name of a production house owned by The New York Times. But we decided we wanted to go further than simply produce for others. We wanted to make journalism in our name, in our own manner and for our own outlet. And that led us to the joint venture with Discovery. We bought 50 percent of one of their digital channels—the channel that had been called Discovery Civilization—renamed it Discovery Times Channel, stole Vivian from CNN, put her in charge of it and said we want to make a cable channel in the image of The New York Times. That's very different from saying we wanted to put the newspaper on television, which is not what this is about at all. It's about creating something true to television that's also true to the journalistic vision of The New York Times.

Vivian Schiller: Looking across the television landscape, we recognized that there was a hole which translates into an opportunity. Even though there's a gazillion networks out there, there seemed to be, shockingly, no place where viewers could turn to get depth, perspective and context on all of the various news events that define their lives.


How do filmmakers work with you?

MO: One route onto the channel is through New York Times Television, which commissions films for the channel and elsewhere as well, and often brings in filmmakers. In addition, the channel itself commissions directly. We have ideas that we look for people to make. And we're very interested in hearing ideas from people out in the filmmaking community about recent history, current events, society, social issues and social trends; anything that provides context, explanation, enlightenment on the world around us right now. So it can be very news-driven, or it can almost be not news-driven at all.

VS: Obviously, our bread and butter—and what we all as filmmakers and producers get most excited about—is our original new programs that premiere on the network. In addition to that, we like to think of ourselves as an aggregator of films that may already be in existence, along the lines of the brief that Mike and I are laying out. So if there are filmmakers who have films—even if they've aired someplace else in the past-if they fit in our brief, we'd be very interested in airing those. And we're exploring another approach: showcasing some of the great—call them vintage—documentaries from the last 40 to 50 years. So it doesn't even have to be something that was produced or aired last year.


What's your viewership?

VS: We're in 30 million homes right now. We don't have any official numbers for you, but we have a lot of viewers. It's part of the design of the network that we are able to make more noise than the usual digital network because we've got the pages of The New York Times to try to reach a very like-minded kind of viewer.


Does that ever pose a conflict of interest? I've been thinking about this now with the Discovery Times Channel, and also with New York Times Television getting a little more visibility over the last couple of years.  It seems like there might be a better shot of getting a film reviewed if it's produced by The New York Times. I don't mean to put you on the spot, but is there a little conflict of interest there in that you're pushing your own product?

MO: It's a perfectly fair question and we try to be careful about it. Of course, we've had this issue in books for years, because New York Times people have been writing books for a century, so it's not a new issue; it's just a new outlet. We try to keep a bit of an arm's-length relationship between the reviews, which are handled in the normal way that any review of any television network would be handled by our culture department. They always give the reviews to outside reviewers. Resident television critics don't write about our own programs, and that's the same policy we follow with books, so we're trying to use essentially the same approach.


Right, but I guess I'm asking about the decision to give ink or column space to a particular program.

MO: That's the judgment of the culture editor, who has to make a decision based on the merits of the film, and the merits of the subjects.

VS: If you've read some of the bad reviews [laughs] that come out occasionally, there'd be no question.

MO: And let me separate out the subject of reviews from the subject of promotion. We have no qualms about the paper and the channel working together to get more impact out of our journalism. The channel and the newspaper work together on things all the time, proudly and productively, and that's part of the purpose of it.


When it comes to co-productions or commissions, how hands-on is Discovery Times Channel?

VS: Extremely hands on. There's not one frame of any film that we put on the air that we don't feel 100 percent comfortable with. The journalism bar is high—in fact, it's the highest out there.  


Right, but if you have quality filmmakers with good track records do you allow a certain amount of creative control?

VS: Technically, we do have final cut. However, we certainly not only allow, but encourage--and in fact specifically seek out—filmmakers that have a creative vision so that the programs are dynamic and interesting and visually stimulating and all the things a great film should be.


What kind of budgets do you work with?

VS: Well, we're a small digital network and we don't have big budgets. We're only in the United States, so we don't need international rights, and to the extent we can acquire US rights only and save ourselves some money to get a great film, that's a plus. To acquire programs it could be anywhere from $2,000 or $3,000, frankly, to the full freight of a $250,000 to $300,000 budget.


How does the hierarchy work? These are two quite distinct entities with, I imagine, big bureaucracies.

MO: It's been almost miraculously smooth. The literal structure is that Discovery Times Channel is a 50-50 joint venture of The New York Times Company and Discovery Communications, which is to say we each own half of it. It is governed by a board of representatives from The New York Times and Discovery. I represent the Times on content issues [with] Tom Carley and Denise Warren on finance issues, and then there are our compatriots on the Discovery side. And Vivian runs the channel. She works very hard to make sure she's running it in the spirit of the two organizations, each of which brings this incredible depth and background on elements of which we hope will make the whole.


There was a flap between filmmakers and Discovery recently about the issue of credits. How is this channel going to handle credit for filmmakers?

VS: We're going to credit filmmakers. Full stop.

MO: It's a good example of where the journalistic spirit of The New York Times is an important element of our thinking here. We believe in authorship. It matters who makes something. That's one of our journalistic principles; part of what you get is not just institutional credibility but the credibility of individuals. That's why we have bylines. People go out and they are responsible for their work. We expect them to be putting their creative juice into the work. Authorship matters. What makes The New York Times different is the depth and breadth of what we do, and that comes a lot closer to what a documentary filmmaker can do. I think that's one of the places where the spirit of the paper and the spirit of the channel really marry very well. Send those proposals.

VS: We want to hear from filmmakers.


Barbara Rick, president and founder of Out of The Blue Films, Inc., is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker based in New York City.