Destination America exec talks about new network’s roadmap to success

Tune in to Planet Green this weekend, and you’re likely to be surprised. Well, that probably won’t happen to many people, or else there wouldn’t be any reason to be surprised. As of this weekend, the erstwhile eco-minded — but ratings-challenged — Planet Green becomes Destination America, a network dedicated to highlighting people around the nation who embody the American spirit. The drastic change in content has been interpreted by some in political terms, with an environmentally conscious network being replaced by one dedicated to unabashed red-white-and-blue patriotism. But Marc Etkind, senior vice president of content strategy for the network (a.k.a. the guy in charge) insists Destination America seeks to celebrate all that is good about America, both red states and blue.

Channel Guide Magazine: What is the identity you’re going to try to establish with Destination America.

Marc Etkind

Marc Etkind: The vision is a simple one: it’s really the first network about the people, places and stories in the United States. You might see American content on other networks, but we’re the first network to make that our core, our brand. It’s really about uniting America and the things that bring us together. It’s not a political network. As I like to say, you can be left or right, it doesn’t matter, when you see the Grand Canyon, your jaw drops. It’s the fun side, it’s barbecue, it’s hamburgers, it’s roller coasters, it’s Las Vegas, it’s the Grand Canyon, it’s these things that really bring out the best in all of us.

CGM: So this was a concept that, as you’re looking at the TV landscape, you thought there was a hole that needed to be filled?

ME: There are two sides to it. One, there’s a personal connection. When I was in college, a lot of my friends did their semester abroad — one went to Paris, one went to London — I did my semester abroad in Arkansas. I’m from the East Coast, and I wanted to see America. Just from a personal viewpoint, we live in this great big country and most people haven’t seen it all. I lived on the East Coast, and I hadn’t been to Arkansas, and most people I know in Arkansas hadn’t been to the East Coast. There’s just so much of this country that people haven’t seen and I wanted to share that with people. Another thing is my grandfather had taken my father to see Yellowstone, and four years later my dad took me on that same trip. That trip just stuck with me. When you see America, it’s not just your own vision. It’s your family and there’s an emotional connection. When you have a brand, if you can add an emotional connection to the subject matter, you’re going to have a successful brand. So there’s the personal side, and then of course, we’re Discovery networks, we do a lot of research into this. We really saw the white space in the marketplace, and heard from people. We interviewed people and heard that they wanted a network that was going to show this positive side of America.

CGM: How are you preparing the launch of the network?

ME: I would say it’s a softer launch on Memorial Day than some other networks. Similar to the way ID [Investigation Discovery] launched, which launched with a great name, some new programs, but really started slow and then built on success. We’re launching with BBQ Pit Masters, Fast Food Mania, Cheating Las Vegas, and that’s mainly what we’re launching with. We’re going to launch new shows over the summer, and a lot of new shows coming in October. When we knew we were going to make this decision, beginning in January, we started running a lot of American content, just to make sure we weren’t crazy, and the ratings have been phenomenal. The best way to build a network is slowly, and through success.

CGM: As far as Planet Green is concerned, do you think there was a perception that it was a political network — more specifically a liberal network — and that turned some viewers off?

ME: I don’t think it was seen as a political network, I just think it was possibly seen as medicine. And when you want to watch TV, you just want to kick back. I’m not sure why that network didn’t work, because I should say that Discovery put some of its best people and significant resources behind trying to make that network work. … The audience for green content is not a TV audience. They’ll get that material on and other places. And I should say that Discovery continues to do really big environmental shows like Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.

CGM: Are there lessons you learn from Planet Green that you take into Destination America?

ME: I think the one lesson I learned from Planet Green is you have to launch a network slowly. They went out there and tried to go from 0 to 60 very quickly. Our lesson from that, and we learned it with ID is start small, start slowly, build an audience and make sure you’re serving your viewers. To use a sports analogy, [we’re looking for] singles and doubles. We’re in the first inning of a 162-game season. We’re really just at the beginning of this journey. When you think about American content — everything from American Idol to America’s Got Talent to American Chopper — there’s something about America that engages people and interests people. What I keep thinking about in American Idol is there are people out there with immense talent, and if they could just be discovered, they’d be stars. That kind of feeling, that there are a lot of talented people out there with a lot of skills, we’re trying to give them a voice. That’s what we’re trying to capture.

CGM: So that doesn’t really lend itself to relying on a lot of star power to bring in audiences. You’re looking to grow your own stars?

ME: Especially in a non-fiction world, people are looking for real, authentic characters. To take from the Discovery family, look at American Chopper. Those guys are fantastic Chopper builders, that’s what they do for a living. We’re looking for those people who are out there doing what they’re doing. Deadliest Catch, those guys are out there crab fishing whether the cameras are there or not. That’s their livelihood, and I think that’s what makes great television.

CGM: What makes a story or a personality a good fit for Destination America?

ME: We’re looking for great American stories. People who are in the family business. Like this Fast Food Mania show, it’s not just about where you can get the best burger, it’s the story of America and people’s dream of starting their own franchise. When you think about Ray Kroc, he used to be a milkshake salesman. He would sell milkshakes to this one place, and they kept buying more and more milkshake machines, and it’s like, “This has got to be a great business.” And he ended up buying into this business called McDonald’s. And now McDonald’s a global empire. That’s a story. From mon-and-pop to world domination. That’s what we’re trying to get at. It’s not just, “Hey, here’s some interesting information,” which we’re going to have in our shows, but here’s something deeper about the American spirit, and this “I have a dream,” “I have a vision and I am not going to give up until my vision is real” attitude.

Here are some of the shows coming to Destination America:

BBQ Pitmasters

Competitive barbecuing is the focus of this mouth-watering series that originally ran on TLC. Traveling to barbecue festivals around the country, 15 of America’s best grillers will compete for one of five spots in a final cook-off with the winner nabbing a $50,000 cash prize and entry into the inaugural Kingsford Invitational. Judges include Tuffy Stone, Myron Mixon and Aaron Franklin. Catch the sneak peek at 10pm May 30 before it marinates into its regular time slot of 9pm June 3.

Fast Food Mania

Turns out there’s a lot more to fast food than just zipping through the drive-thru. This tasty series delves into the pop culture world of fast food, highlighting its cuisine, its fanatical devotees, and highlighting the one-of-a-kind experiences it has to offer. Fast food aficionado Jon Hein (The Howard Stern Show) will bravely sample all the wares and offer up essential tips for navigating drive-thrus and ordering secret menu items. He’ll also peel back the curtain and take viewers into the never-before-seen test kitchens of some of America’s favorite chains. Debuts 10pm June 3.

Super-Duper Thrill Rides

From Universal Studios in Florida to Six Flags in New Jersey, to Cedar Point in Ohio, the designers, engineers and enthusiasts of America’s coolest and most extreme roller coasters explain and explore the popularity of these thrill rides. Debuts 10pm June 16.

United States of Food

Chef Todd Fisher hosts this carnivorous extravaganza, highlighting America’s obsession with meat. Debuts 9pm July 8.

Cheating Las Vegas (working title)

This fascinating series gives viewers a peek into the many ways experienced cheaters try to push the odds in their favor when visiting Las Vegas casinos. Debuts 10pm July 14.

Ghost Town Gold (working title)

Brit Eaton and Scott Glaves explore old American ghost towns, abandoned mining camps and industrial graveyards of the Wild West in search of collectible artifacts. Debuts in August.

Photos: Courtesy of Destination America

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