Harry Butler: The Aussie Talent Who Helped Build Discovery Off the Backs of Snakes and Lizards
We read last week that Australian conservationist Harry Butler had passed away in Perth.
He is a largely forgotten but breakout talent who helped propel Discovery from battling startup to global giant.
Discovery Channel was then searching for its identity and brand, as it struggled to make payroll from week to week.
It’s hard to imagine, but in the ‘Eighties no one knew what would become the secret sauce for a 24×7 factual entertainment channel.
- Discovery was positioned by founder John Hendricks as the U.S. home of BBC-like nature docs.
- But the BBC’s Oxbridge ‘voice-of-God’ narrators didn’t appeal to American cable viewers.
- And anyway, Discovery couldn’t afford BBC docs.
Dr Harry Butler had hosted the returning series In The Wild for ABC Australia.
- He was casually-dressed for the bush, highly expert, cheery, and very ‘Aussie.’
- His trademark ‘get’ was to reach into a log or burrow and deliver a lizard, snake or exotic small marsupial.
Discovery acquired the series, which had two business benefits:
- It was a very cheap. The ABC couldn’t believe its luck in even having an American buyer.
- And it was an efficient buy, coming in volume as a five-season package.
The feedback from Discovery’s viewers was immediate: Harry Butler was highly relatable to the average American punter.
There was an odd supporting factor working at the time: Australia was suddenly the flavor of the month in America.
- Butler piggy-backed off the U.S. box office phenom, Crocodile Dundee.
- Paul Hogan and Harry Butler both showed off their long, lean legs between their trademark shorty shorts and boots.
- And the PBS limited series Nature of Australia was a recent ratings hit, also selling more than a million dollars of VHS boxed sets.
- The Discovery Channel schedulers ran the sprockets off Harry Butler.
- Here is a promo for In The Wild from 1988:
Discovery Discovers Its DNA
Along with Shark Week, In The Wild became both a key anchor of the schedule, and a compass for the programming direction of the new brand.
The young Discovery programming team went to school on the DNA of In The Wild.
- The relatable, Aussie ‘Ocker’ conservationist inspired the next hit talent in the genre: Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.
- Irwin in turn became the face of Discovery’s spinoff Animal Planet network, now a billion dollar global brand.
On the business side:
- Discovery learned that it needed to move beyond acquisitions to ownership of its core branded programs.
- And Australian producers, notably Beyond International became key partners for mutiple Discovery networks.
Here is a link to Harry Butler’s SMH obit, nicely written by Harriet Veitch.
A key Takeaway:
- “Then in the early 1980s he turned his back on television because it was eating into his consultancy work and, he said, he was tired of making money for other people.”
- If only he knew just how much, and for how many…
- So vale, Harry Butler.
- You were much, much more than a mere bricklayer in the building of one of the world’s dominant content and distribution companies.
- “But Harry Butler lives on scientifically. There are a parasitic worm, six reptiles, a marsupial mouse, a flea, two fish and a couple of insects named “Butleri” after him.” (Harriet Veitch)
The Ocker-ish trifecta