From Shark Week to Deadliest Catch to Motor Mondays, Discovery Channel has climbed the Nielsens thanks to a number of tent-pole franchises. Now, the company hopes it is launching yet another one, with tonight’s debut of its first scripted limited series, Manhunt: Unabomber.
The eight-hour series, which premieres tonight at 9 p.m., chronicles the FBI’s hunt for Ted Kaczynski (played by Paul Bettany), also known as the Unabomber, focusing on the efforts of FBI profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Avatar star Sam Worthington) to bring him down. If the series makes the same ratings splash as Discovery’s first scripted miniseries did last September—Harley and the Davidsons averaged 4.4 million viewers and was the No. 1 non-sports cable program in the 25-54 demo all three nights it aired—it could be the start of an ongoing Manhunt anthology series for the network.
Rich Ross, group president for Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Science Channel, told Adweek he saw Manhunt from the start as a potential anthology franchise, with each season centering on a new story. “We wanted to look at a limited series as a model,” Ross said. “We thought real stories lend themselves to limited series, and real stories is very much the underpinning of what we do on the network. I’m not Pollyanna about the situation to say, ‘Yes, there’s a commitment for 10 series over five years.’ I’m very much a pragmatist to understand that if this works, there can be more, and if this doesn’t work, there will be less.”
If the Unabomber series is a hit, Ross said, “We’ve already isolated the story for the next one, but that’s as far as we’ve gone.” He said he didn’t want to get ahead of himself and burn through too much of Discovery’s development money in case audiences end up rejecting the show. “As you run television networks, you learn that sometimes you need cries of acclamation rather than strategic plans to be able to spend more,” Ross said. That’s especially true with scripted television, which is more expensive to produce than unscripted but can also yield more advertising revenue.
While Discovery will never pivot to a scripted-heavy slate, Ross said the network is dipping its toe into the genre to help broaden its audience, stressing that the network’s core themes are reflected in the story and its focus on Worthington’s FBI profiler. “He is a blue-collar hero, underestimated, who overachieves,” he said. “There’s crime, which has long been part of Discovery. The figuring it out is very Discovery, and that’s why I think our viewers will look at it and say, ‘I get why I’m coming for this.’”
The shift from last year’s Harley and the Davidsons miniseries, which aired over three days, to a weekly limited series was intentional. “I wanted to upgrade our impact over a greater amount of time and to tell a more evolved story than what we were able to do in a short period of time,” Ross said.
But that also required a more complicated approach to marketing as opposed to the “burst” that came from the Harley miniseries. “If it catches fire, which it did, then people come night after night,” he said. “The hand-to-hand warfare of fighting to get people to come on a Tuesday night at 10 is challenging, but then that leads to making sure that there are things to sell in it.”
So the Manhunt: Unabomber campaign is focusing on Kaczynski—“People all know the name Ted Kaczynski,” Ross said. “They do not know the story behind it, but they know the name”—as well as its well-known cast. Beyond Bettany and Worthington, the series includes big names like Chris Noth (as Don Ackerman, who supervises the FBI’s Unabom Task Force), Jane Lynch (as Attorney General Janet Reno) and Mark Duplass (as Kaczynski’s younger brother, David).
“The reason everyone recognizes everybody in that cast is not a coincidence, because these days, an all-star cast helps you get an audience,” Ross said.
To convince the cast to sign on to a network that was untested in the scripted world, Ross gave them each six scripts, he said, “and a commitment by me personally and by our network that we would support it and not talk about the future or the past but talk about the present. Once they started signing, it was overwhelming.”
Another key element of Discovery’s marketing plan is the quality of the show itself. The network made the first episode available online over the weekend to build momentum for the premiere, which will include the first two episodes.