If Discovery’s Unabomber Series Is a Hit, It Could Launch a New Network Franchise

Network already has a second 'Manhunt' story on deck

Discovery’s first-ever scripted limited series, Manhunt: Unabomber, chronicles the FBI’s hunt for Ted Kaczynski.
Jason Elias/Discovery Channel

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.

Shark Week still has ratings bite

While Ross is still waiting to see if Manhunt is a hit, he already knows this year’s Shark Week was, thanks to the hype around Michael Phelps facing off with a great white in Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White. The telecast averaged more than 5 million viewers, becoming the highest-rated Shark Week show of all time among adults and women 25-54, and 18- to 49-year-old women. It beat all broadcast networks that night in all of the 25-54, 18-49 and 18-34 demos.

“Our days and our times seem to call out for a louder approach, and we were talking about bringing in a celebrity,” said Ross, who was drawn to Phelps’ name on a list of potential celebs to bring on board. “The conversations all through our group were: how fast could he be relative to how fast a great white shark was? Then you turn to a group of scientists, and they said, ‘Let’s come up with an experiment,’ one that obviously had to be safe.”

That led to a backlash from some viewers who seemed to expect that Phelps and the shark would race side by side in a pool. “I was surprised that there could be a cacophony of certain people that we would do something so unsafe,” Ross said, who adding that he wouldn’t change a thing if he had the opportunity to do so.

While Ross is thrilled with the ratings, he said he’s even happier that all those viewers were exposed to the information from the special.

“A scientist turns to Michael Phelps and says, ‘There are six shark attacks that are fatal every year, and 100 million sharks get killed every year. 100 million!’ When you sit there, you go, ‘If that’s what it takes—Michael Phelps and some hoopla—and that ultimately yields a result, which is the majesty and the plight of the shark, that’s what Shark Week’s about.’ So it worked out well.”

Ross is already shooting four shows for next year’s Shark Week, which will be the franchise’s 30th anniversary. By the time those episodes air, Discovery could have some company in the portfolio. On Monday, parent company Discovery Communications announced it will be acquiring Scripps Networks Interactive for $14.6 billion, with the deal expected to close early next year.

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