Time travel by satellite

17th November 1995 at 00:00
The History Channel has joined a range of documentary channels on satellite and cable, writes Bill Hicks

When you think of satellite and cable television, education might not be the first image that leaps to mind. Sport, films, news and foreign-language channels, could all be considered the staple diet of multi-channel television.

But among the goals and gore, a new breed of documentary channels has emerged, showing that factual programmes can be commercially successful. This month British Sky Broadcasting and American broadcaster AE (Arts and Entertainment) have launched the History Channel, a satellite and cable service that will show three hours a day of historical documentaries.

The channel, showing a mix of American and British productions, is divided into three themed hours, "History Alive", "Our Century" and "Biography", which includes documentary portraits of people, events and places such as the Second World War, Winston Churchill, the Soviet Union, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, Charles Lindbergh and Christopher Columbus.

The History Channel is also an example of the trend within broadcasting to provide channels within channels, moving away from the mixed-diet approach of mainstream scheduling. The History Channel runs from 4.00 to 7.00pm on weekdays, with the rest of the time being used by specialist services including science fiction programmes and Sky Sports Gold, with each "channel" representing a block of time rather than a separate button on your remote control.

The satellite service that has most regularly been wheeled out for inspection for its contribution to education is the Discovery Channel Europe, offering eight hours a day of documentaries with a strong bias towards science and natural history.

"High quality, accessible programming that is engaging, entertaining and intellectually stimulating," the blurb runs. No sport, no news, no soaps.

Running a close second is Discovery's sister leisure pursuits channel, TLC formerly "the Learning Channel", until it was decided the word "Learning" was a bit of a turn off.

Discovery and TLC are the offspring of American parents, but over the past year or two, they have found the resources to give themselves a distinctly European flavour. Both they and the History Channel are pay channels, available either by satellite as part of Sky's Pounds 10.99 a month "MultiChannels" package, or as part of the basic cable offering.

But does this mean that education is finally finding a place on the satellite schedules? Perhaps, but so far only in the widest, most populist sense of the word. As Nick Comer-Calder, vice-president programming for both Discovery and TLC is quick to point out, neither channel is aimed at schools, nor even at young people. "But we do think of ourselves as an aid to education, and we know that Discovery is used by teachers, and watched by many children," he says.

Discovery's target audience in Europe is ABC1 males, aged 25 to 55, which must explain the large chunks of airtime devoted to military matters (three hours on a Sunday afternoon), cars, aviation history, and the more perilous forms of exploration. But it's the rich seam of documentaries on scientific subjects which seems to attract the teachers, and which has led to Discovery's increasing involvement in the European educational broadcasting conference circuit.

Comer-Calder cites a recent "Giant Science" season two hours of science programmes a day over an extended period which was promoted to schools. One result is that Discovery is likely to sign up with the Educational Recording Agency; another is its growing involvement in education projects, contributing, for example, to the media education courses at Liverpool's John Moore University.

Discovery plays on its ability to devote plenty of time to subjects such as meteorology (Wonders of Weather), pre-history (Jurassica), or archaeology (Time Travellers), a luxury which distinguishes it from the more constricted schedules of the terrestrial channels. It also has room for the one-off science and technology strand Azimuth, "our version of Horizon or Equinox".

Discovery's "Europe" suffix is no mere affectation, the channel's biggest audiences are in the Netherlands, Denmark and Scandinavia, not Britain. This has to be borne in mind by its commissioning editor Chris Haws, a veteran science producer for the BBC (Horizon and Tomorrow's World). He is now responsible for a third of the channel's output (70 hours of commissioned or co-produced programmes, so far this year, plus 80 hours of modified programming from Discovery USA).

"As the majority of the audience does not have English as its first language, we try to be that much more didactic; the programmes must explain their subject more clearly," he says. Doesn't that make for rather bland fare for the British? "It doesn't seem to our viewers seem to like the straight-to-the-point, high-density factual approach."

Haws also stresses the old-fashioned virtues of strong visual impact, production values, strong narrative drive but also wants to increase the jaw-dropping factor with series about "the science of the impossible": "For example, we'll have programmes that look at the underlying physics of time travel with reference to Stephen Hawking's work".

TLC has also appointed an ex-terrestrial television commissioning editor, Liz Barron, whose aim is to "widen the remit" of the channel currently most noted for its craft and DIY how-to series. Like Haws, she struggles with a "tiny budget", but has succeeded in signing up some top independent producers by getting them to make programmes about their own personal passions. "We're deliberately not covering vocational subjects," she says. "People are already working themselves to death the message is that leisure is not for losers. "

The message from the American parent company Discovery Communications which, in its 10th year, claims over 80 million viewers in 65 countries for its various regional channels is that the formula of entertaining factual programming is both popular and profitable. It now counts itself among the world's biggest documentary producers, spending over $100 million this year on new commissions. It has also branched out into print, video and CD-Rom publishing, activities which Comer-Calder expects will loom large in Discovery's European operations within five years with a Discovery Channel Europe website arriving much sooner.

Discovery Channel: 0171 813 5000 The Learning Channel (TLC): 0171 482 4824 The History Channel: 0171 705 3000

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