The following is an excerpt from “A Curious Discovery: An Entrepreneur’s Story,” (HarperBusiness, June 2013) by Discovery Communications founder John Hendricks, available at the following sites: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Indiebound.
My plan was comprehensive and complete on almost every other subject. I had a complete analysis of programming costs, as well as transponder and uplink expenses. I had a detailed marketing and sales plan to get carriage on cable systems. And Suzanne Hayes had made enough progress in her content search that I had a long list of programs and series that could make up a credible program schedule.
But the question I hadn’t fully answered was the big one: would anybody watch?
Detailed ratings information was hard to come by. In fact, I only had access to the audience ratings for a few PBS series, such as “Cosmos,” “Civilization,” and “The Ascent of Man.” R. H. Bruskin Associates had conducted a survey of viewer interests in March 1982 — and I had a summary report of that study. It offered the best evidence I could find; its results indicated that 62.5 percent of adult Americans wanted to see more programs about science.
However, I also knew that was just what people said in a phone survey, maybe to prove how intelligent they were to the pollster. But would they really watch? Only real ratings data could actually prove or disprove my case. I knew there had to be someone out there who had that critical information I needed.
It was now late March 1984, and the all-important first meeting with Allen & Company was less than three weeks away. I stared at my phone. Would it actually be possible to get in touch with Walter Cronkite himself? He would know his own ratings. But would the most trusted man in America even take my call?
I hesitated. Who did I think I was even thinking about calling the great newsman, the one person I most admired in the world of television, the man who had provided the voice track of my life? If I was going to embarrass myself, I certainly didn’t want to do it with Walter Cronkite.
And That’s the Way It Was
It was one of those moments when you either go big or go home. I steeled myself, threw caution to the wind, and dialed the CBS News office in Manhattan.
“This is John Hendricks. Can you connect me to Walter Cronkite?” I said with the most confident voice I could muster. I expected the receptionist to say, “And just who the heck is John Hendricks?” Instead, she put me on hold.
Finally, she came back on the line. “He’s working over at his Time and Life Building office today. I have the number.”
In somewhat excited disbelief over such quick cooperation, I wrote down the number and dialed. A woman answered the phone and I asked to speak to “Mr. Cronkite” — which I immediately realized indicated I was not an acquaintance.
“He’s out at the moment. Can I take a message?” she politely replied.
I knew this message was vitally important and so I decided to tell the woman all about why I was calling. I explained my plans for a new documentary channel for cable and why I thought Walter Cronkite would be interested. She didn’t interrupt so I kept talking.
In other words, I probably sounded hopelessly obsessed. Finally, mercifully, after one of my pauses, the woman spoke up. “How about this? Why don’t you put all this in a letter to Mr. Cronkite? Keep it short, no more than two pages, and I’ll make sure it gets in front of him. Be sure to include your phone number so that we can reach you.”
How many times had she given this same advice to other hapless callers?
She gave me the office mailing address and I thanked her. I then asked her name. “Blanche Lafitte,” she replied. I loved both her name and her willingness to help. Afterward, I made sure to cover my letter to Walter with a letter addressed to her.
Then I waited — likely for the nicest rejection letter or phone message one could imagine. What the heck, I told myself, it was worth a try.
I was just about to leave the house one morning about a week later when the phone rang. I figured it was for Maureen but answered anyway.
“Is this Mr. Hendricks?”
“Yes,” I replied. It was … the voice.
“Mr. Hendricks, this is Walter Cronkite, and boy, I think you are really on to something. I’ve just read your letter, twice in fact. Could you come to New York to meet with me?”
“Absolutely,” I replied, beginning to tremble. “I can be on a train anytime.”
He then told me he would have Blanche call to set up a time, as he was still at home. Blanche had given my letter to Walter as he walked out the office door the day before; she figured he might read it that evening. I loved that Blanche.
Soon I found myself in New York with Walter Cronkite — Walter Cronkite! — for not one, but two meetings within a two-week period in April 1984. He also made plans to come down to Washington on May 10 to meet with my staff and support network. He wanted to be of any help he could.
When I told Walter that I would probably need his help with introductions to financial people in New York, he replied, “I would be glad to. I know a few people.”
Yeah /// he knew a few people. Behind him on the wall as he spoke were two framed photos, one of him walking on the Normandy beach with Dwight Eisenhower and the other of him in front of the Great Pyramid with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
A Fair Share
During my meetings with Walter that April, he had explained that the ratings for Universe had been good but hadn’t always met the expectations of CBS management.
The three broadcasting networks at that time were still dividing up an astounding 90 percent share of the total television viewing audience. So, a third of that amount, or a 30 percent share, was expected for CBS prime-time shows.
Universe, a science and technology series, typically garnered a 25 percent share — a number that, once again, was consistent with the early research I had first encountered back in college. It seemed that it really was a world that was 25 percent full of curious people. Unfortunately, CBS had viewed that glass of human curiosity as being 75 percent empty while I was seeing it 25 percent full.
Walter went on to say that CBS canceled his Universe series largely for “audience flow” reasons.
“John,” he explained, “the audience that shows up for an informative show like Universe will just not stay on for the sitcom that follows. We had a nice audience for Universe, but they just abandoned the network when our show was over at eight-thirty. They probably turned the TV off to read a good book.
“However,” Walter added, “if you can get a cable channel up and running with back-to-back shows on science and other educational topics, these viewers will finally have a TV channel that they can stay with all day.” He smiled like a co-conspirator and said, “This really is an idea whose time has come.”
I asked Walter if he would put what he had just said in a letter to me — especially that part about “an idea whose time has come.” He readily agreed, asking Blanche to come in and work with me so that I could take the letter with me when I left. “I’ll make phone calls, too,” he promised.
Before I left with his endorsement letter, I talked to Walter about ways that we could work together. He told me that he was very disappointed about how things had worked out at CBS: he had planned to work on Universe for years — only to see it canceled and buried.
I told him that I would need a lot of help programming my network, and I wanted him to be a producer and host once I secured my financing. “It’s a deal,” he said.
It was April 11, 1984, and the most trusted man in America was on my side. I could not believe my good fortune. The man who had most inspired my passion for quality television was going to be my production partner.
I floated out of the lobby of the Time & Life Building at Fiftieth Street and glanced across busy Sixth Avenue toward the neon lights of Radio City Music Hall. As I hailed a taxi for the train station and looked up at the skyscrapers of Manhattan, I knew I had come a long way from Hatfield Bottom.