When nature came to the living room


Over the last 25 years, Discovery channel, which had a shaky start, has been instrumental in sparking an interest in wildlife and its conservation

Asim Kamal

At a time when people seemed to be getting disconnected with the wonders of nature, the beauty of the wild entered their homes 25 years ago through TV sets.

On August 15, 1995, India got its first taste of non-fiction TV viewing with the launch of Discovery channel which slowly captured the imagination of the young and old alike. Two decades later, it’s still a favourite.

Though shows like ‘Man Vs Wild’ and ‘Dual Survival’ were popular many years later, there was scepticism about the channel’s success when it was launched in 1995 as many thought only “song and dance” would work in India.

Kiran Karnik, who was the managing director of Discovery Networks (India) when the channel was launched in India, says that in those times cable operators were the “gatekeepers” as any channel for survival needed to be in the top bands as most TV sets could take only a limited number of channels.

“If you were not in those channels, even before you started, you had lost the battle. Most cable operators used to tell me that people want the song and dance routine,” he says.

Karnik adds that he and his team convinced many of the cable operators by giving the analogy of a dictionary, saying that it may not always be used but is kept at home as it is important, which was true of their channel as well.

Many cable operators carried the channel which slowly caught on, and the rest as they say is history.

Ashok Ogra, a veteran in mass media who joined as the head of programming soon after Discovery channel was launched in India, says a lot of people repeatedly told them that only cricket, serials and movies would sell in India as there was no audience for non-fiction.

Discovery’s India network served the South Asian region.

Karnik says he feels thrilled now when many people meet him and say their interest in wildlife or science began with Discovery channel while they were growing up.

“I was a nature enthusiast and used to crave for Hollywood movies in which they would show dense forests. When the Discovery channel came, I begged my father to get cable TV installed as a birthday gift. It was the best birthday gift ever,” says Bahjat Nomani, a 40-year-old wildlife enthusiast from Lucknow.

“It gave wings to my imagination and watching animals in their natural habitat was the most amazing experience,” he says.

Karnik says the amazing aspect was that post-liberalisation in 1991, “people became much more materialistic” as compared to the “strong dash of idealism” in earlier times, and Discovery brought environment and nature back in their lives without being “in your face”.

He says it was a 24X7 channel with a lot of repeats, but it was its wildlife shows that proved to be the “hook” that caught on.

It was not High Definition to start with, but its technical standards were very high which was also a first for Indian television viewers, he adds.

However, the channel’s journey was not easy as for the first two years it did not even break even and they managed to survive only because the parent channel had “deep pockets”, says Karnik.

Ogra says it was not just the pioneer channel in terms of being “non-fiction entertainment” but also proved to be a reference point for Indian documentary film-makers.

“Wildlife was an important segment but there were also shows related to culture, travel, science and crime. It was ahead of times,” he says. Megha Tata, the current Managing Director, South Asia, Discovery, says that since the day the channel was launched in the country, the purpose has always been at the heart of its business.

“We are focused on real life entertainment – on powering people’s passions across every screen – wherever and whenever they want it. That’s why we have received so much love and respect in India,” she says. “We have set benchmarks for non-fiction programming in the country, serving our passionate fans with content that inspires, informs and entertains.”

Asked about the future plans and the way forward for the channel after completing 25 years, Tata says it is a much more evolved business with brands like Discovery, Animal Planet, Eurosport, TLC, Discovery Science, Discovery Turbo and Discovery Kids powering the passions of “superfans”.

Another significant achievement of the Discovery channel in South Asia has been creating awareness for wildlife conservation at a time when it was a topic that was not part of the mainstream discourse.

Discovery’’s launch in India brought wildlife conservation into the homes of the masses, bringing not just high quality wildlife viewing that was not possible before but also creating a force for wildlife conservation and helping in weaving the global agenda and policies needed for sustainable development, says manager, Conservation Assured | Tiger Standards (CA|TS) Partnership, M K S Pasha.

“Wildlife and environment issues were limited to print media content and only accessible to a limited and literally privileged audience. Coverage of nature, environment and wildlife by Discovery using state of the art technology with deeper knowledge of content have shaped people’s experience,” says Pasha, who has an experience of over 20 years in wildlife conservation.

Their natural history shows are responsible for inspiring a new generation of conservationists and content fuses science and nature in a way that few can achieve, the Singapore-based wildlife conservationist says.