Musings, inspired by a building
This week I, like anyone who works in non-fiction television
does at one time or another, made the journey to Silver Spring
to see the folks at Discovery. I am such a frequent visitor
that I am on first name basis with the main receptionist and
am granted the privilege of a yellow pass, which means I dont
have to be accompanied around the building. I have even begun
to figure out the labyrinthine building.
In 1992, I started working for Discovery and left in 1996.
When I arrived, there were 245 employees in the company.
Today, Discovery is one of the Washington, D.C. areas
top employers. It now occupies not a floor and a half of a
building but a newly built, beautiful building of its own
in Silver Spring which dwarfs anything in the neighborhood.
When Discovery arrived, the area was barren of restaurants
and shops. It now thrives. Jokingly, people say that that
part of Silver Spring should be called Hendricksville, after
the founder of Discovery, John Hendricks.
The transformation of Discovery from a company in 1992 with
245 employees to the powerhouse it is today is part of one
of the great business stories of the 20th century the
emergence of cable networks as dynamic entertainment forces.
It is a story that has taken place over twenty years and one
that we now take for granted.
Of course networks like Discovery are important cultural forces
In 1985, twenty years ago, when I was the head of Ad Sales
on the west coast for A&E, I told people at ad agencies
the day would come when cable networks would control more
eyeballs than broadcast networks and I was scoffed at. But
it happened in 2004 and has continued to accelerate.
This transformation of the media landscape is largely due
to the vision of individuals like John Hendricks, who mortgaged
his life to the hilt and maxed his credit cards to launch
Discovery. Hendricks, Ted Turner, the often vilified John
Malone, and others took a small backwater industry and transformed
it over a couple of decades into a major industry which influences
every part of our lives.
Can we, most of us, imagine life without CNN? It is difficult
Cable companies are now competing with telephone companies
for my phone business and are providing me with high speed
internet access. Internet? Who knew that in 1985?
Today, in the background, Internet2 [code named, I think,
Abilene] is hovering, an even more robust infrastructure which
is just beginning to make itself available, and promises to
transform the media landscape even more.
When I started working for A&E, many ad executives looked
at me quizzically and asked me: what magazine is this? Or:
None of those questions are asked anymore.
Cable is an industry and cable networks are a force, whether
delivered by a wire or from the sky by satellite. Broadcast
networks are continuing to creatively drift, with ratings
in a slow downward spiral despite occasional successes like
Cable nets are competing creatively and in ratings with the
broadcast networks. The unthinkable of twenty years ago is
now almost accepted as fact. Broadcast networks still have
a glitter about them but the glitter doesnt twinkle
as brightly as it did.
All of these were thoughts I had as I walked from the Washington
Metro up to the Discovery Building. The transformation of
an industry seemed embodied in that physical structure.
However, cable is now considered a mature industry
and must fend off new technology threats. Internet surfing
is replacing television viewing and with Internet2 hanging
off there in the background, more changes are in the offing.
The fastest growing segment in advertising expenditures is
for internet delivered advertising, which is a sure harbinger
that change is upon us. Verizon is introducing a new cell
phone handset that apparently delivers pretty damn good pictures.
Electronic innovations will continue to accelerate and acerbate
our sense of future shock.
We live in yesterdays future and it is far different
from what we expected in 1985.
I find it exciting even if a bit threatening.