Steve Burns, the chief programming officer of CuriosityStream, shares with TV Real his strategy for delivering top-notch content that will resonate with the service’s very curious subscribers.
In 2014, John Hendricks retired from his post as the chairman of Discovery Communications, which he had founded in 1985. Less than a year later he had taken his pioneering spirit and devotion to high-quality nonfiction to the OTT space, launching the SVOD service CuriosityStream. The platform is catering to fans of science, history, technology and nature with both original productions and acquisitions. Tasked with curating CuriosityStream’s content mix is Steve Burns, a veteran of the factual business who spent some 25 years in roles at National Geographic and Discovery.
TV REAL: What genres and shows are resonating with your subscribers?
BURNS: Number one is science, closely followed by history shows and then after that comes space. On the science front, David Attenborough’s Light on Earth was a big breakout. [We also have] Ancient Worlds, about the geologic periods and the extinction of dinosaurs, and Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places. In history, we’ve had a lot of big hits, for example, Bombing War: From Guernica to Hiroshima, a beautifully made film out of France. We’ve had lots of success with our own history series, Deep Time History, produced by Flight 33, which took the interesting idea that world history has not only been determined by great battlefield generals and those sorts of military circumstances but also by geology and biology and other sciences.
We’ve done a lot of in-house productions in space. We’re doing Space Probes!, following not only the probes that have gone to the outer planets and the inner planets and have mapped all of them, but also the engineers and planetary geologists. Another big space show that we did was Destination: Pluto, a multi-part series leading up to the flyby of Pluto.
TV REAL: Coming from a linear background, what are the challenges and opportunities for you programming an OTT service?
BURNS: We don’t have the kind of programming budgets that a network does, but that has forced us to be super creative. The other challenge is more of a marketing one—getting known in a complex television, cable and internet environment. But because John Hendricks started this, there’s been a lot of attention. He’s helped to jumpstart us much more quickly than would be the case for any other service.
In television, everybody talks about taking risks on programs, but they never do. When a board member tells a programmer at a network, We’re all about taking risks, what they’re all about is finding a hit, just like the other networks. It has nothing to do with risk. But here, you can actually take risks. In television as a commissioning editor, when I would make a decision I really did think about who was going to watch this show. Are we going to get the older demos, are we going to get any of the younger demos, are we going to be able to produce a broad audience? You do that for every show. Here, every show does not have to appeal to a broad audience. I’ve taken chances on shows that I would never have done on television because it wouldn’t have had enough viewers to produce big ratings.
TV REAL: What do you look for in pitches?
BURNS: I welcome them all. A lot of people have these passionate ideas and want to get them out there, so we listen. We can’t do all of them. We can’t even do a small percentage of them. But it’s fair for commissioning editors to listen to pitches and try and be constructive, even though they may not be able to do the show. I get pitched unsolicited four or five times a week. And then I get phone calls from wonderful producers all around the world who I worked with in my days at the other networks. And then at the events, we see them and we get pitched there.
Most topics have been done, but because science is always evolving and changing, we can revisit topics. So we look for those new insights in history and science, and we also look for production values. Storytelling techniques change. We look for things that will appeal to people who are super curious about their world, space, science, history, technology and wildlife. There is no formula. It’s a combination of the filmmaker’s experience and passion and knowledge of what’s already in our inventory. And for me, it’s always about insight and innovation.