LONDON — Even by showbiz standards, the hoopla surrounding the announcement of Discovery Networks Intl.’s upcoming five-part docu, “How We Invented the World,” seems a tad excessive.
The show, spotlighting the technological breakthroughs of the past century, including the automobile and the cell phone, and those likely to emerge in coming years, has been hyped as “the prototype for globalized TV in the future.”
“It’s epic in scale, idea and budget, but retains local flavor,” says Julian Bellamy, DNI’s new creative director and head of production and development, a role created for him.
Bellamy is the silver-tongued and boyish Brit who joined the U.S. cable web in June to spearhead what Discovery says is a “step change” in its international strategy, placing more commissioning power with execs outside the U.S. He’s is in charge of greenlighting docus and factual entertainment that can satisfy audiences across national boundaries.
Produced by Nutopia, responsible for History’s “America: The Story of Us,” the skein’s selling point purports to be the degree to which it can be localized to individual markets.
“It’s a ground-breaking creative model,” Bellamy says. “We’ll have an international master, but in key territories the show will be customized. We can swap out stories and interviewees, and swap in local ones.”
It is unclear how many countries will benefit from these hand-made versions, but Bellamy reckons it will be around 15 of the 210 territories in which Discovery Intl. is distributed.
Bellamy’s experience is extensive. He ran the U.K.’s Channel 4 programming team, where he was commissioning editor for “Big Brother” and greenlit breakout hit “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.” He also headed youth-friendly digital webs E4 and BBC3, and was regarded as being groomed for even bigger things in the British TV hierarchy.
Bellamy is one of the chief beneficiaries of Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s recent decision to up global programming spending from about $650 million to $1 billion a year, though the company declines to specify how much will be spent outside the U.S. Bellamy, however, gives the impression of an exec with money to spend, a rare bird these days.
With History and other channels in the international game, Discovery will need to depend less on U.S. shows and more on fare commissioned from outside the mother ship in Silver Spring, Md. Bellamy believes the Discovery brand and its association with quality storytelling will give the cabler an advantage over rivals.
This outside commissioning strategy has already borne promising results in Russia, with shows like “Daughters vs. Mother,” and in Poland with “Don’t Tell the Bride”; Poland is Discovery’s third biggest revenue source outside the U.S., after the U.K. and Brazil.
“The international division is at a point where to drive growth, we have to invest in more international production,” Bellamy says. “This is in addition to what we commission from the U.S. and our acquisitions.”
Bellamy, who reports to Miami-based Luis Silberwasser, DNI’s executive VP and chief content officer, oversees four production hubs — London, commissioning for Western Europe, Central Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa; Miami, commissioning for Latin America; Singapore, commissioning for Asia, Australia and New Zealand; and New York and Washington, D.C., for American companies pitching to the U.K.
Bellamy says there will always be a role for shows that work in a small number of markets, such as “Don’t Tell the Bride” and “Daughters vs. Mothers,” but that in the future, the emphasis will be on shows that are universal enough to work in many territories.
“Our big push is in funding that ambition in areas that we know work very well for Discovery,” Bellamy says, pointing to science, engineering, survival and adventure programming as key genres.
Some British producers have been reluctant to work for Discovery, which drives a hard bargain when it comes to retaining the backend rights producers share when their shows are bought by U.K. broadcasters. However, Discovery maintains it is already working with 70 U.K. shingles, including those involved in development deals, and Bellamy says compromises can be struck on rights.
“If there was a spectrum with the standard U.S. model at one end and the standard U.K. rights position at the other, we’re going to be somewhere between the two,” he says. “We are in the international television business. That means we are not in the game of taking rights for one market. We can be flexible.”
Much is riding on “How We Invented the World,” due to air in the second half of 2012, and Bellamy’s other early commissions. In the past, when DNI commissioning power has been ceded to London, it has not lasted long.
Bellamy maintains he will hold real autonomy at DNI. “Luis (Silberwasser) and Mark Hollinger (DNI’s prexy and CEO) hired me in to run it my way,” he says. “Everyone is on the same page. So long as people feel that we are commissioning great shows, we’ll get loads of space.”
To prove his point, Bellamy cites a recent documentary on last year’s mass shootings in Norway produced by ITN Factual in the U.K.
“That was commissioned after a quick phone call with Eileen O’Neill who runs Discovery TLC in the U.S. She said the U.S. wanted to come in as well. Three weeks later, the program went out in 200 countries in 25 languages in addition to the U.S.”