Cable net sees opening for classy nonfiction programming

With “Jersey Shore” snookin’ through the summer and “Real Housewives” sprouting up in the U.S. capitol, it’s easy to despair about the future of unscripted TV (in this context, “reality” hardly applies).

Yet there is another front in the unscripted wars, a second tier of more enlightened — and enlightening — reality.

Having enjoyed considerable success with “Planet Earth” and “Life” — two multi-part, globe-spanning nature documentaries — as well as the cosmos-gazing “Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking,” Discovery Channel sees potential in essentially defining upward expectations of what the British prefer to call nonfiction TV.

As part of that, according to prexy-general manager Clark Bunting, Discovery plans a major rebranding campaign next year, emphasizing the answer to the question, “What is Discovery when it’s at its best?”

This isn’t to say that Discovery will become all-prestige and upper-crust accents all the time.

There’s an understanding that networks can only live off so much highbrow fare, and the channel has made popcorn-y inroads with programs like “Deadliest Catch” — which this year dealt with the death of a central character, in what Bunting calls “a seminal moment” — as well as shows like “Dirty Jobs” or “Man vs. Wild.” And given the visceral appeal of “Shark Week” — which just feasted on record ratings in its annual summer appearance — don’t expect that sort of franchise to swim into the sunset.

Still, with naturalist David Attenborough’s project “First Life” to come and “Life” still visible in the rear-view mirror, Bunting points to a void once occupied by the likes of primatologist Jane Goodall, astronomer Carl Sagan and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Those larger-than-life personalities defined programming exploring mysteries of the world and beyond for a generation.

“Who is the next Attenborough? Why don’t we have a Cousteau?” Bunting asks, saying that Discovery should be developing the next crop of signature figures.

Part of the reason Discovery can plot this course stems from a demographic-driven turn by some of its ostensible competitors away from such ambitions. The History Channel, for example, has dropped its last name and departed from a strict interest in history, in part to pursue younger audiences.

“Everybody’s driving for the bottom,” Bunting says. “The top is completely undefended.”

PBS still travels in this space, tackling big topics and showcasing filmmakers like Ken Burns. HBO also remains uncompromising in its approach to documentaries, in the way perhaps only a pay channel can.

But there are few who can be accused of aiming very high in the commercial realm — including, it should be noted, sister Discovery brands, from TLC’s focus on what might charitably be called unorthodox families (the latest being “Sister Wives,” about polygamy) to Investigation Discovery’s odd infatuation with prison — having just announced a pair of prison-based talent shows, to follow “Prison Wives.”

Beyond the time and expense associated with a venture like “Planet Earth,” considerations undercutting more topnotch programming hinge largely on suppositions about the audience — or more accurately, the perceived difficulty in leading them to classier programs. Besides, trashy concepts or stunts help in knifing through the promotional clutter.

Still, producer Erik Nelson, who has worked on a wide variety of reality shows as well as documentaries such as the acclaimed “Grizzly Man,” says the two can coexist. “The American public does like to be talked up to,” he says. “They get it in ways that TV creators sometimes forget.”

Nelson is producing one of Discovery’s bolder efforts for next year, “Reign of the Dinosaurs,” a six-hour project that provides a computer-generated look at Jurassic life without narration or dialogue, almost like “The Rite of Spring” segment in “Fantasia.” The challenge, he notes, is to deliver programming that can be both compelling and factual.

Bunting — a 25-year Discovery veteran who replaced John Ford in December and also oversees Science Channel — is seeking to evolve the flagship network as its corporate parent embarks on a pivotal year. Perhaps foremost, that entails launching the Oprah Winfrey Network and the Hub, a children’s co-venture with Hasbro.

If Discovery ultimately fails to make good on the lofty talk, or retreats to a lower common denominator at the first sign of trouble, it’s at least the kind of philosophy and articulation of principle that’s easy to support — and which in success (obviously no small “if”) could yield dividends in terms of the channel’s audience profile.

“We should be leading,” Bunting says. “Everybody else should be chasing us. We should define what nonfiction is going to be …

“It’s harder to do, but ultimately, more rewarding,” he adds, defining the programming ideal as follows: “On a good night, you learn something.”

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