Credit the eclectic tastes of a slight, British 50-year-old named Jane Root. Since becoming Discovery's chief three years ago, Root has helped pull the nature channel out of a ratings slump with shows featuring, in no particular order, people battling nature, people living in prison, people saving the planet, and so on. Ratings are up 16% this year and 11% among the elusive 25-to-54-year-old male. "Discovery has become a must-have channel for a lot of our clients," says Chris Boothe, who is the top media buyer for ad agency Starcom USA. "You might not have said that a few years back."
No lie. Discovery started to lose its way in 2003, shoving aside furry animals and sunsets and relying too heavily on such do-it-yourself reality shows as American Chopper, derided in the biz as "tattoo TV." Ratings withered as viewers fled to The History Channel and National Geographic Channel. "It was like crack cocaine," says Root, who lost little time dropping American Chopper and sister show American Hot Rod. "You got a ratings high but became addicted as well."
By the time Root joined Discovery in 2004, the onetime TV critic had carved out a reputation at BBC Two for developing the quirky likes of The Office and The Weakest Link. Root decided to marry Discovery's nature programming with an extreme sensibility. And like so many British imports, she looked homeward for ideas. Root scooped up Man vs. Wild, which stars a former British special-forces soldier scrounging for food in the Moab Desert or trying not to freeze to death in the French Alps. She had a hand as well in greenlighting Planet Earth, a Discovery-BBC joint venture about the diversity of life. Timed perfectly to tap into America's nascent environmental awareness, the program, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, quickly became one of Discovery's biggest hits.
Root likes to say that Discovery shows must equally educate and entertain. But entertainment rarely takes a back seat. Which is why Root hung on to MythBusters. It features a motley crew of geeky special-effects masters, who, among other things, test food for its flatulence-inducing, um, qualities.
No one is cheering Root on more than a certain billionaire media mogul. John Malone recently won majority control of Discovery Communications Inc., which owns Discovery and 11 other U.S. channels. Later this year, Discovery is almost certain to go public. By Ronald Grover