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Discovery Lifts 'Atlas’

9/29/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

To present its version of a global Atlas, Discovery Communications Inc. has reached into all parts of its world.

The $65 million, multiplatform project will take a close look at 30 nations, their people and cultures over the next five years.

The first two-hour installment, Discovery Atlas: China Revealed, made its U.S. debut Oct. 1 at 9 p.m. (ET/PT) on the Discovery Channel, as well as on outlets in Canada, Europe, Asia and Latin America. All told, Discovery Atlas will be shown in more than 170 countries and territories.

NATURAL BEAUTY

The project also spotlights the natural beauty of these lands through high-definition, with director’s cuts of the episodes debuting simultaneously on Discovery HD Theater. Online and broadband content, including video via Google Earth (earth.google.com), will supplement what viewers can see on the TV screen. Atlas will also open its pages through a number of educational initiatives and via products at Discovery’s retail store network.

“From our view, a 21st century Atlas is not just a book, it’s not just on TV. This is a big fence with all parts of the company involved and everybody working and pulling together,” said Discovery Channel executive vice president and general manager Jane Root.

Root said the initiative began germinating about three years ago from DCI founder and chairman John Hendricks. “You know the Discovery logo has the world in it, and we really wanted to grab hold of that,” she said.

Discovery executives also view Atlas as a project that will grab the “true promise” of HD.

In addition to the simultaneous director-cut airings, Discovery has emphasized the enhanced format by hosting a number of affiliate screenings around the country. Executives also noted that Atlas will become the first TV series to be released on HD-DVD, Blu-Ray DVD and standard DVD formats, with the discs going on sale at the company’s more than 100 retail stores in late October.

“It’s a natural for high-definition,” said Root. “High-def really shows the beauty of these people and places.”

In terms of presentation, Discovery has placed the camera on everyday people. Root noted that with China, the vantage points, among others, come from a farmer who is tilling the rice fields his ancestors have worked for 18 centuries; a little girl training to become a gymnast for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; and a man “who comes from a country town with no roads or cars and then becomes a window washer” at one of the tallest buildings on Earth.

“We’re telling the story of the world, one person at time,” said Root. “There was talk initially about using experts. But these are people stories, files of personal jeopardy where you wind up rooting for these people. We opted to go small, rather than take the scholarly approach on the TV screen.”

In gathering these personal segments, the first four installments of Atlas were garnered from nearly 1,000 video tapes. For the China episode alone, the production crew filmed in some 40 locations.

A bigger picture look, with more in-depth analysis from the folks on the ground and experts can be found at discoveryatlas.com, where users can find minisites, trivia questions and short-form videos and other content focusing on each country’s landmarks, customs, history, food and overall culture.

SCHOOL APPLICATIONS

On the educational front, Atlas is offering vignettes as lesson plan supplements on digital video library unitedstreaming.com and its COSMEO homework services. An educational version of the original Atlas program, edited for use by middle school and older students, will also be available.

The migration into school curricula will also keep the project vibrant until the next round of nations are explored, according to Root.

So who’s next? This month, U.S. viewers can journey to Italy (Oct. 8), Brazil (Oct. 15) and Australia (Oct. 22). For the most part, international Discovery outlets are following the same schedule, save for the U.K., where the programmer is bowing Atlas installments on Saturday to capitalize on the big night for TV premieres.

In 2007, Discovery will likely spotlight four countries, before accelerating the program thereafter.

At press time, Root was uncertain about next year’s country lineup, one that may include “possibly South Africa, Mexico and France, and perhaps Peru.”

September