John S. Hendricks founded Discovery Communications because he loved learning stuff, and saw an opportunity in the early days of cable television to create a channel dedicated to nonfiction programming.
Discovery is now a multibillion dollar, global enterprise, banging out new shows and new channels aimed at feeding our hunger to know more, and perhaps entertain us in the process.
Hendricks is not quite satisfied. He called me up to his Silver Spring office last week to discuss his latest venture, the Curiosity Project. The initiative represents Hendricks’ latest attempt to take people on a deeper dive into the big intellectual questions of our day. He hopes to serve up the latest research by exploiting what he sees is an unserved gap in the information that is presently available.
Television is all well and good, but it’s designed for a short attention span. Much of what you find on the Internet is not much better; so much is boiled down into 140-character tweets, one chart to explain the world, or five facts you didn’t know about boiled cabbage. At the other end of the extreme is the ivy-covered halls of higher education, where courses span semesters and require mortgage-size student loans.
“I’m trying to bridge that gap,” Hendricks said.
He wants to bring in big thinkers to discuss their lofty ideas at pricey, week-long retreats, and then turn those conversations into high-quality video segments he makes available to you and me on demand for say, $19.99 a year. He figures a deep-ish dive into a single topic might require a two-to-four hour investment of your time, longer than it might take to watch a documentary but shorter than the time you might spend reading a nonfiction book.
His target audience is lifelong learners, but this is not some snooty, academic endeavor. He is starting with the topics that animate bestseller lists, such as an examination of modern China or the science of happiness. His advisory board includes not only theoretical physicists and nanotechnologists but actress Glenn Close, Eagles band member Don Henley, and Georgetown University President John DeGioia.
The Curiosity Project enters a field crowded with potential competition, from TED Talks, to iTunes U, to those educational videos you find on YouTube. Hendricks figures he might have to sink $5 million into the project over the next five years to gain a foothold, and he’s doing so out of his personal venture company, Hendricks Private Holdings. He projects revenues of $1 million in 2014.
He’s off and running; he began taking out advertisements last week for his first two high-end Curiosity Retreats, hosted at his Gateway Canyons Resort & Spa in Southwest Colorado, with talks by well-being guru Deepak Chopra and Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist.
Hendricks sounds charged up about the project’s prospects.
“It’s risky,” he acknowledges, but that’s the fun. “This is a new entrepreneurial venture.”