Educational programming has been a popular genre since the invention of television, but only with the advent of cable could an entire channel be devoted to it. Although it has shifted direction and features more reality programming now, Discovery Channel still has deep roots in educational television. As the network has grown, it has shifted much of its more specialized programming to sister channels and focused more on people and personalities, but even these reality shows typically provide viewers with an educational perspective.
History of Discovery Channel
When it first went on the air in 1985, The Discovery Channel had only 12 hours of programming and shared stations with other networks. The flagship station of Cable Educational Network, The Discovery Channel invested heavily in documentary television that had rarely or never reached American audiences. Programming from the BBC, Australian networks and even Soviet television comprised about 75 percent of its lineup; PBS shows and original programming made up the remainder. Some early popular titles included the science and technology news show Beyond 2000 and Scrapheap Challenge, a British show that later evolved into one of the station’s first hits, Junkyard Wars.
Beyond 2000 showed futuristic science, but by the time the year 2000 arrived, The Discovery Channel was beginning to shift its focus to reality-driven shows and contests. The production company behind Beyond 2000 developed a concept for testing urban legends and myths, a concept that later became the network’s most popular show, MythBusters. Throughout the 2000s, more personality-focused reality shows such as American Chopper and Man vs. Wild began to edge out the science, nature and technology programming. These shows migrated to sister stations within the Discovery family. The network also changed its name and logo to a more streamlined design, dropping the definite article from the name and becoming Discovery Channel.
Today, Discovery Channel’s programming is almost exclusively reality-based and personality-based programming instead of documentaries, most of which find audiences on sister networks. It is still home to special programming such as the BBC series Life, a 10-part nature documentary that took years to film and research. These specials and many of Discovery Channel’s series often reappear on sister networks.
Discovery Communications, Inc. now features nine channels in addition to its flagship station Discovery Channel, including:
- TLC, formerly The Learning Channel and now the home of Toddlers and Tiaras
- Animal Planet, a network for nature programming
- OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, a station featuring talk shows, documentaries and how-to programming
- ID, or Investigation Discovery, a station devoted to true crime documentaries
- Destination America, a network focused on travel and regional culture within the U.S.
- Discovery Fit, an exercise, fitness and health channel
- The Military Channel, featuring programming about military history and technology
- Science, a network for documentaries on astronomy, biology, chemistry and other pure sciences as well as applied sciences such as engineering and architecture
Top Discovery Channel Shows
Many of the shows featured on Discovery Channel also appear on sister networks either at the same time or shortly after their run on the flagship station. Check local listings to find if these shows appear on Discovery or on an associated channel.
MythBusters: Still Discovery Channel’s most popular show, MythBusters is in its tenth year. Movie special effects designers and creative skeptics Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman uncover the truth behind such modern myths and legends as whether a water heater can explode and why pirates wore eye-patches.
Deadliest Catch: A documentary about crab fishing off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Sea, Deadliest Catch is as much about the men who do this dangerous job as it is about the sea. Currently in its ninth season, the show has followed some ships’ crews since 2005.
Dirty Jobs: Having recently ended an eight-year run, this show about real people who do filthy but fascinating work remains popular in reruns. Host Mike Rowe visited every state to follow snake catchers, sewer inspectors, turkey farmers and worm grunters to work. The show’s mixture of humor and respect for those who do difficult or dirty jobs gave it wide appeal.
How It’s Made: Each episode of this long-running Canadian series features a few objects and shows how they’re made as a narrator describes each step of the process. Unlike other shows, How It’s Made has no stars or story lines; it is solely for watching the manufacturing process of everything from jellybeans to luxury cars.