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Discovery founder John Hendricks' book covers start to Honey Boo Boo

By Joe Flint

2:43 PM EDT, June 21, 2013

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A new distribution platform is emerging and no one knows what to make of it. The established players are wary of it and see it as more foe than friend. Others are afraid of losing their shirt by investing in it.

Sound familiar?

But this isn't the Internet. This was cable television in the early 1980s. Back then there were only a handful of networks and few were talking about 500 channels full of original content.

"It was an unproven business, investors were not convinced that cable programming was a good investment," said John Hendricks, founder of Discovery Communications.

In his soon-to-be-released autobiography "A Curious Discovery," Hendricks tells the story of how he built Discovery from one channel into a global media empire with shows ranging from explorations of the planet and universe to reality fare starring a precocious kid nicknamed Honey Boo Boo. 

Intrigued with science and space travel ever since he was a kid, Hendricks had been keeping an eye on the cable industry as it started to gain traction. He was working in academia at the University of Maryland when he decided to try to create a channel that would carry educational fare.

Hendricks pitched his wife Maureen the idea first. She was on board but did have one crucial question.

"If this is such a good idea, why didn't Ted Turner do it?"

Hendricks had wondered the same thing but moved forward anyway. He took out a second mortgage on his home for $100,000 and threw in another $30,000. Now all he needed was another $25 million to try to get Discovery off the ground.

Hendricks knew how to get grants from the government and foundations for research, but this was different.

"I had to get introduced to individuals who could write $50,000 investment checks and to companies that could invest $1 million or more," he writes in "A Curious Discovery." Through a mutual friend, Hendricks met Harry Hagerty, a D.C. businessman who had developed digital switches for phone companies.  Hagerty liked the idea and connected Hendricks to Allen & Co., the boutique investment bank.

Hendricks also figured having a big name on board wouldn't hurt either. He cold-called CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, who like Hendricks shared an interest in space travel and serious documentary programming. Cronkite loved the idea and wrote Hendricks a letter offering an endorsement that he could show to prospective backers.

Finding content wasn't the problem. Hendricks discovered plenty of documentaries from the BBC and elsewhere he could get rights to on the cheap.

The next step for Hendricks was to persuade cable operators. He gambled and rented time on a satellite and put on a sample of Discovery for free for a week. After that, 900 cable operators representing almost 5 million homes (a lot back then) said they wanted to carry the channel.

Allen & Co. was then able to raise $5 million for Discovery, and it launched in 1985. The only problem was that the channel was burning through that cash. Hendricks looked to find a partner and was willing to sell 40% for $6 million. He said Disney and Universal turned him down and a deal with Chronicle Publishing fell through.

Hendricks then had Allen & Co. reach out to John Malone, whose Tele-Communications Inc. was the biggest cable operator in the country at the time. TCI took a stake, and three other major operators did as well, saving Discovery from crashing and burning before it could ever get far off the ground.

Over the years, Discovery has grown from one channel to severalm including TLC (formerly the Learning Channel) and Animal Planet. At the same time, it has also broadened its programming beyond nature, space travel and science to reality. Some critics think the company has gone too far away from its original mission to educate and enlighten with shows such as "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" and "Amish Mafia."

"I could not disagree more," Hendricks wrote. "Nor will I ever apologize for having built Discovery on good business principles."

In an interview, Hendricks said for the company to be a global force it needed to expand beyond the 25% of TV viewers who come to television for information and get to the 75% who "primarily look to television for amusement."

And as for Turner, he ended up trying to buy Discovery but struck out.

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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.

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