Anyone who has ever gawked at the enormous inflatable shark fins atop the Discovery Communications building in downtown Silver Spring — a reminder of the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week extravaganza — knows that the Washington area is a player in the cable television game.
But less visibly, there are many other channels in offices around the region, employing hundreds of local workers who help provide entertainment for million of viewers around the world.
Did you know the Travel Channel headquarters is down the street from the Friendship Heights Metro station? Or that the central hub for BET is an office building in Brentwood? If not, it’s understandable: As these types of channels have grown and invested in various productions (scripted shows, for instance), they have expanded operations to traditional entertainment centers in New York and Los Angeles.
Still, while having a strong presence in those cities is necessary for business, the channels all have strong attachments to their Washington headquarters.
Along with PBS — the Arlington-based public television consortium has a Washington presence that cannot be denied — here’s a closer look at some of the major cable stations that call D.C. home.
Owned by: Viacom
CEO: Debra Lee
Founded: January 1980
Number of D.C. area employees: About 250
Audience size: 90 million U.S. homes
Target demographic: African Americans, ages 18 to 49
Sister network: Music-themed Centric
Highest-rated show: “Real Husbands of Hollywood”
You may have seen: “106 & Park,” “The Game,” “Let’s Stay Together”
D.C. means making connections: When it first launched, BET was mostly talk shows and music videos, so the District was the perfect place to house low-cost programming as the channel grew. The network has since created operations in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, but chief executive Debra Lee has a long list of why Washington is an ideal home, including the exposure to Congress and the White House and the chance to make connections with everyone from members of the current administration to FCC commissioners. (Those political types get perks, too — if you look closely in the audience at the annual BET Honors at the Warner Theater, you might see Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. or presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett in attendance.)
Plus, the network — the first African American-controlled company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange — benefits from being in a city heavily influenced by black culture. “I always thought, personally, it was very important for our national audience for BET to come from a predominantly black city,” says Lee, who served on President Obama’s management advisory board.
It’s rare to hear a network executive talk about courting older viewers, but Lee says that the original strategy of aiming for ages 18 to 34 had some drawbacks — the people who had grown up watching BET wanted to keep watching. The channel focuses on 18- to 49-year-olds now, with the average viewer being in the low 30s. “We want to be a network where the young people come to us at an early age through ‘106 & Park’ and then stay with us through [gospel competition] ‘Sunday Best,’ ” Lee says.
Lee says there’s some “friendly competition” between cable networks in the area. But mostly executives from the local networks like to get together and talk about the industry. “I think of competition as a much broader group of cable networks, no matter where you’re located,” Lee says. “You all show up on that Nielsen report every day.”
Neighborhood: Chevy Chase, Md.
Owned by: Scripps Networks Interactive
President: Laureen Ong
Founded: February 1987
Number of D.C. area employees: About 150
Audience size: 94 million U.S. homes
Target demographic: Skews male, ages 25 to 54
Highest-rated show: “Mysteries at the Museum”
You may have seen: “No Reservations,” “Man v. Food,” “Hotel Impossible”
With so many media companies and outlets based near Washington, there is a “critical mass” of talent for entertainment companies, says President Laureen Ong. “It makes D.C. an attractive area for people that want to work in nonfiction . . . and a nice, rich fodder for a lot of talent.”
When Scripps bought the channel a few years ago, the biggest shift for the network was to enhance the very idea of what the network represented. “We really try to look at how we think about travel so it’s not just about a two-week vacation, a passport and an airplane ride,” Ong explains. Show categories include food (“Burger Land,” “Bizarre Foods”); behind-the-scenes of the industry (“Airport 24/7: Miami,” “Baggage Battles”) and even haunted locales (“Ghost Adventures,” “The Dead Files”).
Lesson learned — people love
The one show that does well no matter where execs put it on the schedule: “Mysteries at the Museum,” hosted by Don Wildman, who explores artifacts at various locales. “It’s something that resonates very strongly,” Ong says. “Clearly, when people travel, museums are a place they like to go.”
Neighborhood: Silver Spring
Owned by: Radio One and Comcast
CEO: Alfred C. Liggins
Founded: January 2004
Number of D.C. area employees: About 80
Audience size: 57 million U.S. homes
Target demographic: African-Americans, ages 25 to 54
Highest-rated show: “R&B Divas Atlanta”
You may have seen: “Life After,” “Unsung,” “Save My Son”
D.C. means being a part of a community:
Washington-based Radio One owns the channel, so that explains TV One’s presence in the Washington region. But as the network takes advantage of that synergy, it also works closely with the other entertainment companies. “It is our privilege to be a part of the cable community choosing to make the nation’s capital its headquarters,” says chief executive Alfred Liggins.
Reality shows pay off:
The new-ish channel went through a major overhaul last summer, anchored by the debut of a reality series, “R&B Divas Atlanta” — and was rewarded with the most-watched original premiere in the network’s history. One of the pillars of TV One is spotlighting famous people in the African American community; those types of reality shows (including its spinoff, “R&B Divas: L.A.”) embody that goal. “These are music artists who were stars and harken our audience back to their younger years,” says Kenetta Bailey, the network’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “You heard their music and you felt good about these people.”
Then and now:
“We always like to say what it took to get the network to be successful the first seven years, it’s going to be something different for the next seven,” Bailey says. With the new tag line “Where Black Life Unfolds,” the network’s goal is to show the African American experience through multiple dimensions. That includes serious issues in “Find Our Missing,” the S. Epatha Merkerson-hosted series that profiles cases of people of color who have disappeared, and “The Ricky Smiley Show,” a sitcom about a single father. “Some networks seek to reach our audience solely through reality shows — it could be flattering, maybe, maybe not,” Bailey adds. “So what we look to do is have a much more robust portrayal of black life in America.”
Neighborhood: Silver Spring
Owned by: Discovery Communications
CEO: David Zaslav
Founded: June 1985
Number of D.C. area employees: About 1,500
Audience size: 100 million U.S. homes
Target demographic: Men, ages 25 to 54
Highest-rated show: “Gold Rush”
You may have seen: “Mythbusters,” “Deadliest Catch,” “American Chopper”
D.C. means a new take:
Discovery Communications’ channels have offices and operations all over the country, from New York to California, but you can’t miss that giant building in Silver Spring. And having the flagship channel’s headquarters in this area pays off. “Sometimes being a step or two away from the major media centers like New York and Los Angeles can help you get a fresh perspective,” Discovery Channel President Eileen O’Neill says via e-mail. “And the world tends to come to D.C. on a personal front.”
A solid performer with its reality shows, Discovery is taking a big step in the coming months with its first-ever scripted miniseries, “Klondike,” about the Alaska Gold Rush of the 1890s. (That shouldn’t come as a shock, given the ratings success of the channel’s similarly themed shows, such as “Gold Rush” and “Bering Sea Gold.”) Another project on Discovery’s horizon is “an expansion of our commitment to live events,” O’Neill says. In June, the channel will feature a live broadcast of stuntman Nik Wallenda walking on a tight-rope across the Grand Canyon.
Aside from Discovery Communication’s flagship channel, the company owns many other popular cable channels based in Silver Spring. Here’s a rundown:
Highest-rated show: “River Monsters”
Target demographic: Adults, ages 25 to 54
Highest-rated show: “Breaking Amish”
Target demographic: Women, ages 18 to 49
Highest-rated show: “Through the Wormhole With Morgan Freeman”
Target demographic: Men, ages 25 to 54
Highest-rated show: “On the Case With Paula Zahn”
Target demographic: Adults, ages 25 to 54
Highest-rated show: “BBQ Pittmasters”
Target demographic: Adults, age 25 to 54
Highest-rated show: “Ultimate Warfare”
Target demographic: Men, ages 35 to 64
Highest-rated show: “Chasing Classic Cars”
Target demographic: Men, ages 25 to 54 (“upscale” male audience)
Neighborhood: Downtown Washington
Owned by: National Geographic Society and Fox Cable Networks
CEO: David Lyle
Founded: September 1997
Number of D.C. area employees: About 200
Audience size: 85 million U.S. homes
Target demographic: General audience, ages 25 to 54
Sister network: Wildlife-themed Nat Geo Wild
Highest-rated show: “Killing Lincoln”
You may have seen: “Locked Up Abroad,” “Wicked Tuna,” “Border Wars”
D.C. means knowing people:
The National Geographic Society is headquartered in the District, so it’s helpful to be near the parent company. “But I guess that’s a bit like saying why it’s good to live at home with mom and dad,” chief executive David Lyle acknowledges. Another advantage, however, is being close to certain “gatekeepers” who can unlock to the key to unique programming. Recently, the channel was the first to be allowed to ride along with an elite team of parachute jumpers in Afghanistan, which led to the six-part documentary “Inside Combat Rescue.” How was Nat Geo granted special access? Well, being only a few miles from decision makers at the Pentagon didn’t hurt.
Branching out . . . in a historical way:
In addition to more scripted projects (including the docudrama “Killing Lincoln” and TV movie “SEAL Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden”), the network is experimenting with different formats, such as three-part docu-series “The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us,” narrated by Rob Lowe. If it sounds like the channel is trying to grab some of the “I Love the [insert decade here]” audience, Lyle is quick to point out that the series had historical relevance. “We did a show that could have been a frivolous clip show, but we insisted that we really had to look at historical underpinnings,” he says.
Lyle recognizes that people tuning into Nat Geo want a balance of entertainment and informative shows, since the network seeks to provide “authentic entertainment.” This led to a pleasant surprise for Lyle with the premiere of the interactive experiment show “Brain Games,” the channel’s highest-rated series launch ever. “It’s unabashedly smart — it’s not elitist, it’s not academic, but it is smart TV,” he says. “So I guess we’re asking something of the audience, and they’re giving it.”
Run by: A 501(c)3 membership organization
President: Paula Kerger
Founded: November 1969
Number of D.C. area employees: About 400
Audience size: 354 member stations across the country, reaching 220 million people
Target demographic: Adults, ages 40 and up; for PBS Kids, children, ages 2 to 8
Highest-rated show: “Antiques Roadshow”
You may have seen: “Downton Abbey,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Live From Lincoln Center”
D.C. means access:
PBS isn’t actually a cable network, but the consortium of public television stations produces a huge amount of original programs, and that includes D.C.-set broadcasts that remain a staple throughout the year: Memorial Day and Fourth of July concerts from the Mall, the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize, the “In Performance at the White House” series and more. “It’s very helpful to be within the community where we’re actually doing broadcasts,” says President Paula Kerger.
‘Downton,’ ‘Downton’ and more ‘Downton’ — but what else?
Yes, PBS is home to the ubiquitous, addictive British drama. (“How cool is it that we’re in ‘Iron Man’?” says Kerger, referring to the recent shout-out in the “Iron Man 3” movie. “ ‘Downton Abbey’ is everywhere!”) Besides the “Downton” phenomenon (Season 4 premieres on Jan. 5), PBS has seen a big surge in its online presence, especially in developing more content and mobile access for children’s shows. Noting that PBS competes against other companies with “very deep pockets,” Kerger added that PBS has had a lot of success providing educational online video content for kids and building out more content with PBS Digital Studios.
Not just politics:
Kerger sees the increasing number of creative types coming to the District as beneficial to the already numerous entertainment companies already in the region. “The perception of Washington from the outside is it is truly a one-company town,” Kerger says. “And I think that has shifted a lot over 10 to 15 years.”
Neighborhood: Downtown Washington
Owned by: Showtime Networks and the Smithsonian Institution
President: Tom Hayden
Founded: September 2007
Number of D.C. employees: 35
Audience size: 70 million U.S. homes
Target demographic: Adults, ages 25-54
Highest-rated show: “Aerial America”
You may have seen: “L.A. Frock Stars,” “Titanic’s Final Mystery,” “The Hunt for Bin Laden”
Although it is owned by Showtime, which is based in New York, network executives consider Washington to be the Smithsonian Channel’s home — and for good reason, given that the channel (which focuses on programs about history, culture and science) is inspired by the Smithsonian Institution.
The channel has an “interesting DNA,” says David Royle, executive vice president of programming and production, because it has to blend entertainment and historical elements. But that also means a unique way to get programming ideas, especially since productions are heavily intertwined with the Smithsonian Institution. For example, when Smithsonian scientific research teams found the world’s biggest snake in Colombia, that led to the channel’s exclusive documentary “Titanioboa: Monster Snake.”
A new perspective:
When people think “Smithsonian” and its museums, they often think of its nickname, the “nation’s attic,” Royles says. Therefore, the channel tries to show that the brand can expand. For example, there’s the reality show “L.A. Frock Stars,” about a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles called The Way We Wore. The store’s owner, Doris Raymond, “is a walking encyclopedia of vintage clothing,” Royles says. “She’s not a curator — she doesn’t have to be.”