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CuriosityStream exclusive: John Hendricks and Clint Stinchcomb on the binge-worthy factual TV newcomer

Headshots of John Hendricks and Clint Stinchcomb
John Hendricks and Clint Stinchcomb are the power behind the CuriosityStream curtain. Pic credit: CuriosityStream

CuriosityStream presented for the first time on Saturday at the Television Critics Association’s 2019 Winter Press Tour, and by all accounts, it’s a new network that aims to steal Netflix’s and pretty much everyone’s “just the facts” thunder.

Founder John Hendricks is no programming rookie, his vision and steerage for the behemoth Discovery and all its network spawn [TLC, Science Channel, ID and more] still dominate the cable television space.

Hendricks has every intention of becoming the alpha and omega force in all things factual, from documentaries to the coming slate of news analysis shows and the resurrection of classic docs in sheer volume and of the utmost quality.

After all, it’s not this renowned cable cowboy’s first televised rodeo.

On first look, the quality abounds as this award-winning streaming and on-demand destination is now in heavy advert rotation and is pushing hard for people to discover (pun intended) and sign up via their Roku, Apple TV and other streaming devices.

The documentary genre has ramped up in volume dramatically in the last thirty odd years, documenting our diverse human story and experiences, past and present.

Lesser known stories, occupational deep dives, sports victories and defeats, biology, flora and fauna, war stories, genocide, racial divides, cultural mores and secrets, oceanic exploration, automotive achievements and space exploration, memoirs and biographies, paranormal science, lore and arcane historical events have elevated collective consciousness of who we are, where we came from and where our future can take us.

Make no mistake that this is Hendricks core mission with CuriosityStream.

So, what do we get with CuriosityStream?  At this time there are 16 collections covering everything from tech to best in science, nature, history, technology, society and lifestyle.

No real-time news is available on CuriosityStream yet but as revealed in our interview below, a looming original content stream of news shows, which will give a chance for respected journalists to jump back into the limelight to deep dive into the factual news-making stories of the day, is coming.

We sat down with Founder and Chairman John Hendricks and Clint Stinchcomb, President and CEO of CuriosityStream today at the Television Critics Association to talk about this bold new venture.

Monsters and Critics: CuriosityStream is fascinating to me. How is your business model and how are you going to compete with a Netflix that’s gobbling up content left and right? I assume that that’s what you’re trying to do as well?

John Hendricks: Yes, we look at television and look at on demand and this world of streaming, there are four big categories of content. There’s movies and scripted, there’s sports, there’s factual, and then there’s general television entertainment.

And so, what we focus on is factual, so it’s the whole factual category. And it’s not only natural history and history and science, but the whole everything that you can imagine, even human adventure.

When you do something, and that’s your focus, you tend to do a better job at it, and it’s like there are a lot of networks from like USA Network, TNT and TBS, that do sports programming, but ESPN, that’s their focus, and I think they’ll always do it better.

When I launched Discovery years ago in 1985, HBO had a wonderful documentary unit, headed by Sheila Nevins, that did great work.

And again, our focus on factual in the earlier days just gave us an enormous advantage when we won the loyalty from viewers. And then we’re seeing that now with our CuriosityStream subscribers.

The name of the game is original content. And we’ve been at this kind of behind the scenes for four years.

I knew our first pass was program original content, so of our 2,100 titles, over 800 titles are original.

It’s still much fun. Today, if you go to our session, you’ll see a sample of one of our original series Speed [starring Sean Riley], and it’s so nice to see our labors of love starting to materialize on the screen. Because these things take from 18 months to two years to develop.

We’re trying to deliver everything that we can within 18 months of the start of production, so it’s quite a challenge to do that.

But original programming and having a consistent focus and a mission, then you become a destination for people. And so, we think Netflix is a destination for scripted and movies…

They do have a pretty impressive factual menu. They have about 75 series titles. They’ve captured some really great programming, and they’ve got… It kind of broke my heart when I couldn’t get Planet Earth, which is what I created with the BBC way back in 2001 when we started production.

But we were able to go around the world to acquire existing libraries of great factual content, but most importantly, go into original production.

M&C: Okay. Someone has an idea for a documentary. How do they pitch you? How do they go about getting on your radar to present? And I know that you don’t have set programming time restraints. I read that it could be 17 minutes or two hours, whatever the vision…

John Hendricks: Whatever it takes to tell the story.

M&C: How does someone approach you? What are the channels?

Clint Stinchcomb: I think that anybody who has an idea can reach out to our head of programming, Steve Burns. A lot of people know Steve from… Ran programming at Discovery, at Science Channel, and even at Nat Geo.

So, he has a lot of relationships in the nonfiction space, and if people don’t know him, I suspect they know somebody that knows him. And if I may add just a little bit to what John said about Netflix, I would say that you know, John mentioned, they have a finite number of titles.

We have today over 2,000 choices, growing to 3,000 by the end of the year, so we’ll compete on quality certainly, but we’ll also compete on quantity, you know? Our focus is just this… The purity of focus, just factual, factual, factual.

Clint Stinchcomb: And the other way we look at it is it’s not necessarily a zero-sum game, right? We’re not defeating communism or fighting the spread of communism. We think that there’s ample room, when you consider the fact that there are billions of potential customers for us to go after.

M&C: So, I worked out, you have 16 collections of topics. Is that going to expand these verticals of specific documentaries?

John Hendricks: Yes, what you’re referring to, we do have collections of interest. So, there are a lot of great content that are related to medicine or the human body, and we have six big categories that we kind of program in: Science, technology, history, issues, human adventure, and lifestyle.

We’ll add two more collections this year, and Clint, you might talk a little bit about Children’s collection, which I think is going to be terrific. We have a lot of people who have fallen in love with the service that have K through 12 students, and so we have the children’s collection. It’s going to be terrific.

Clint Stinchcomb: Yes, we’ve nibbled on the edges with children’s programming to date, but we anticipate adding a lot this year. So those thousand-plus titles that we add this year, a healthy portion will be kids and children’s programming.

I think that if you look at obviously what’s happening for kids’ programming in the linear space, that’s a business that’s in massive decline, right?

People want it in an on demand environment, and we feel like kid’s and children’s programming is a natural area for us.

It’s nice that our families can sit down and watch our programming. It’s family friendly, we have safe harbor, I think we’re going to do that.

And another category that I think we’ll expand in a little bit is Classic.

M&C: When you say Classic, explain.

Clint Stinchcomb: There are some great series that are older than 10 years that may have been shot in Super 16, but not HD.

That we just think people would love to have a destination for those, and so I think if we present it as our Classic collection, it’ll excuse some of the graininess of it, but we just think some of the thoughts that have been expressed and some great classic documentaries and series, we want to be a showcase for that.

M&C: Do you have any title names you want to throw out?

Clint Stinchcomb: Not yet. Give us a month.

John Hendricks: And I think another program, and I’ll give a hint, we’ll call you when we’re ready to release [this information], but so one of the areas, of all the factual, what we will not do is breaking news.

That’s covered. But we want to do a modern take on news magazines for the digital age. And so, that’s something that you’ll hear from us I think within the next 60 days, debuting a news magazine that’s perfect for the mobile generation on the go.

Clint Stinchcomb: Everything from, you know, issues of the day to you know, explaining what blockchain is.

Or explaining what, you know, how Tony Romo’s able to predict what happens in the next football play [from] inside of his brain.

It’s a cool category. It’s something John’s [Hendricks] been thinking about for a while

M&C: Okay, virtual reality and headsets. Upfront…I have a personal bias. I’m convinced that it is by way of the dodo. Tell me I’m wrong.

Clint Stinchcomb: I know, I know. It may be my bias, too.

John Hendricks: Yes, well, I think VR has its challenges because it’s designed for a very personal experience and under a headset.

And I think some of the studies have shown that people have a tolerance for about 12 to 13 minutes of being isolated and cut off, and it can be disorienting.

We have to deal with that reality. But that said, as we go out to film on, especially exotic locations that people never get to visit, we now film everything in 4K, 8K’s on the horizon, but 4K will be terrific, but we’re also mindful that there could be VR dimensions to our content.

We’ll capture and have it ready. The other challenge is having kind of a really widespread platform that you could sell a subscription to. You’ve got to think through the economic model of this, too.

I’m hopeful that someday, there will be a dependable five million user set using one or two standard devices to which we can stream content for VR use.

We think millennial’s will be all over it, we think young people will be all over it, but again, it has to work within this limitation of people not wanting to be under that headset for longer than 12 to 13 minutes.

But that gives us the timeframe. We could do segments, and we’ve done some experiments with a tomb in Egypt, where we’ve captured a tomb. And again, we’re looking at how to deliver that content. It can be stunning.

M&C: I hate it.

John Hendricks: But it can be stunning.

But there is one [VR intended footage] where there’s a platform, and you go under it and you go out, and it’s just a drop off. It’s like you’re on top of a thousand story … and they say, “Take a step.” Your body won’t let you take a step. It is funny!

M&C: Tell me where to find you. How do they get CuriosityStream?

John Hendricks: Google CuriosityStream, you will come to it, so people can consume it directly.

For those who want to put it on screen, then we’re available through the Google, Android platform, Chromecast, through Apple TV, through Amazon Fire, and so a variety of ways to get to the big screen.

Clint Stinchcomb: Yes, there are over 35 partnerships.

John Hendricks: You want to share it with your family.

And, so much of our content is 4K. We have over 200 titles, and you like to enjoy that on the expensive new Samsung set you bought that’s 4K, and there’s not a lot of content in 4K, so again, people are discovering our 4K content.

M&C: Will CuriosityStream veer into the world of reality enhanced with dramatic constructs?

John Hendricks: Now, reality TV can be very authentic, climbing a mountain, and it’s a story of people where there’s not really any play acting to the camera, it’s not contrived situations, so we will do reality TV and to that extent, but we’re not going to do contrived situations, which most people associate with Curse of Oak Island.

Clint Stinchcomb: I remember when sort of reality TV was just coming into being, and I was at Discovery, and producers would come in and say … I’d say, “Well how does this work?”

“We’ve got to create just an awesome sense of urgency and an awesome sense of jeopardy,” you know? Truth be damned, right?

M&C: Right, and that’s Discovery’s bread and butter. Series’ like Gold Rush and all that.

John Hendricks: Well, it was just a mixed emotion day when the ratings came in from Honey Boo Boo, you know? And you saw it. It will give you some short-term ratings gains, but long-term…

[And] what Netflix did, which was very interesting back in 2011 and ’12, they spent a lot of money with a lot of the networks and tested content. And what they found and was obvious, is like factual, great television that matters and science and natural history really work.

And consequently, after that, they started going after BBC content, [and were] convinced to do Our Planet. What they also discovered was there just wasn’t a residual appetite for reality TV.

Didn’t have kind of long-term value on a menu. And so, I was aware of that, a lot of people in the industry were aware of that. But we acted on it some four years ago to start original productions of great factual content that we know will have long legs in these SVOD platforms.

CuriosityStream can be found at CuriosityStream.com and on most major streaming devices.

Also via Roku, Apple TV, Xbox One, Amazon Fire TV, Sprint, Google Chromecast, iOS and Android, as well as Prime Video Channels, DISH, Sling TV, YouTube TV, VRV, Comcast Xfinity on Demand, Cox, Layer3 TV and the Sony, LG, Samsung and VIZIO smart TV platforms.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
April Neale
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