News & Politics

DC Film Industry Professionals Thrived for Years on Being Close to Discovery

As one of the biggest distributors of nonfiction programming, Discovery turned Silver Spring into a magnet for people who work on documentaries. What happens now?

Photograph via Flickr user Chris Hsia.

The news Tuesday that Discovery Communications plans to vacate its Silver Spring headquarters in favor of New York and Tennessee is already anticipated as delivering a blow to the Washington area’s economy, and especially Montgomery County’s. While it’s simple to grasp the macro impact—1,300 high-quality jobs moving out of the area and downtown Silver Spring losing its main anchor—the DC area’s documentary producers may feel it much more acutely.

The 1998 announcement that Discovery would move to Silver Spring was hailed as the beginning of Washington’s transformation into “Burbank on the Potomac,” despite the fact that the company has been a DC-area product ever since it was founded in Landover in 1985. But to the segment of the entertainment industry focused on nonfiction content, the appellation rang true. Since its beginning as a niche channel that showed nature documentaries and repurposed Soviet broadcasts, Discovery has grown to a global conglomerate that operates 13 channels in the United States, and about another 200 around the world. Naturally, it needs programming to fill all that airtime.

Like other entertainment companies of similar size, Discovery is largely in the business of buying shows from independent production companies, ranging from blue-chip shows like the BBC’s Planet Earth, at the time the most expensive documentary ever made, to low-budget reality series like TLC’s Cake Boss, which has cranked out 227 episodes of bakery intrigue since 2009. It can—and does—solicit content from all over the world. But just as in Hollywood, where small producers live down the street from the big studios, “Docuwood”—an early-aughts moniker that’s since faded—thrived on documentary producers having proximity to some the biggest and most prestigious distributors of unscripted content: Discovery, National Geographic Channel, and PBS.

“It’s the cachet of being in Hollywood, rather than Fresno,” producer Walter Gottlieb, whose company went on to produce titles like Hillbilly Handfishing and Catfishing Kings for Discovery-owned Animal Planet, told the Washington Post in 2004.

For a while, the nickname held up somewhat. Hustling producers and editors could run into Discovery programmers and executives the Panera Bread across the street, or Silver Spring’s other lunch spots. The company was the original sponsor of the AFI Docs film festival through 2012, briefly turning Silver Spring into a Sundance-style marketplace where aspiring documentarians could pitch their projects to HBO, public broadcasters, or, more likely, one of Discovery’s many brands. And even though documentary filming is done all over the world, the area around Discovery headquarters became a magnet for editors, sound mixers, and other post-production professionals.

“It’s a relationship business, so the producers who you can see and meet daily will have the advantage,” Jay Danner-McDonald, who’s edited shows like Modern Marvels and American Loggers, tells Washingtonian. “Network executive producers would rather not have to travel out of town to check in on a series.”

Cutting down on travel time has its advantages. Archie Moore, who works at the sound-design company Clean Cuts, says that while the production companies he works with can be far-flung, Silver Spring is still the nexus of activity. “Discovery is a very important client for us and many other local facilities,” he says. “A lot of our other clients are production companies that do create content for the various Discovery Network channels, so there’s a lot interdependence between the organizations. A lot of relationships, friendly and professional, are based on the proximity of the Discovery headquarters. The sense I get is that all local parties, including Silver Spring-based Discovery staff as well as the vendors, are a bit on edge and many are uncertain about their futures.”

But perhaps members of Washington’s documentary-making scene should’ve seen Discovery’s big news coming, says editor and producer Paige Smith Lee. “They’ve been gutting DC for a while,” she says. “In my mind, the takeover of the LA and New York producers killed the industry much more than Discovery moving.”

Ryan Walker, an editor and producer, has been hearing more from Discovery’s people on the coasts than Silver Spring lately. “As far proximity is concerned, over the past year almost all of my interactions with the network have been from either LA or NYC executives and not the Silver Spring office,” he says. “Maybe that’s a sign that it doesn’t really matter where I work from as long as I’m trusted and that other companies that work for Discovery will continue to do so if they have a good track record.”

Aside from one show for Shark Week 2015 and an episode of the 2014 Investigation Discovery series The Vanishing Women, Lee says she’s worked more with National Geographic Channel than Discovery over the past several years. And while Discovery has shifted more programming control to its operations in New York and Los Angeles, Lee says it’s being stuck on traditional television that’s really mucked things up, with streaming services like Amazon, Hulu, and especially Netflix taking more of people’s viewing habits.

“As someone who makes documentaries, the philosophy of how the shows are made don’t make for good shows,” Lee says. “Commercial breaks, recapping, it doesn’t transform well into a digital form.”

Netflix, which presents its content without interruption, recaps, network bugs, or other interruptions, has been growing its documentary slate along with the rest of its original fare. In just a single quarter of 2017, the service debuted six original feature documentaries and two original non-fiction series. It’s also collected seven Academy Award nominations in documentary categories since 2014, winning Best Documentary (Short Subject) last year for The White Helmets.

Lee isn’t holding out for Discovery to pivot toward digital. She now does a lot of work with AARP, which last year hired away Jeffrey Eagle, Discovery’s digital executive producer, to lead an in-house production studio. The first series, Dinner With Don, a chat show hosted by the late comedian Don Rickles, debuted in September.

But while the power centers of higher-profile documentary work shift to New York, California, or the streaming services, proximity to the people making the programming decisions is reassuring to people who work on the actual shows. Walker even has an idea for what could become of Discovery’s building: “My hopes are that Netflix or Amazon open an office in the Silver Spring headquarters.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.