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Classes buy into Discovery

By Annys Shin
The Washington Post

Laura Brown isn’t on the payroll of Discovery Communications Inc., nor does she get sales commissions from it.

But she could be Discovery’s secret weapon in the cable programmer’s quest to expand into the education business.

Last year, the high school media specialist signed up for unitedstreaming, Discovery’s subscription-based, Internet-delivered video streaming application. Through unitedstreaming, teachers and students can view video clips that range in length from 30 seconds to 20 minutes and cover subjects from cell division to sexually transmitted diseases. The clips are categorized by state education standards and are searchable.

Brown was so impressed with unitedstreaming’s offerings she trained more than 200 teachers and students at her school in Burtonsville, Md., to use it. She also touted the product at a professional conference and in library journal articles.

“I can’t say enough good things” about unitedstreaming, Brown said, noting its advantages over traditional formats.

“It’s so hard to get science videos. It gets so expensive, then people lose them or bring them back damaged,” she said. With unitedstreaming, schools can choose from 20,000 video clips, save them to a hard drive, burn them onto CDs or integrate them into presentations. Through its new subsidiary, United Learning, Discovery also provides training and materials such as pre- and post-viewing exercises and teachers’ guides.

Discovery is betting that an army of converts such as Brown will ensure the success of unitedstreaming and its new business unit, Discovery Education. Based in Silver Spring, Md., Discovery is a global media company operating 60 networks in more than 160 countries, reaching more than 1 billion subscribers.

Discovery launched Discovery Education in March, several months after it acquired United Learning, a 50-year-old producer and distributor of educational films and videos based in Evanston, Ill.

For anyone who thought Discovery was abandoning its nerdy roots with made-for-advertiser hits such as “Monster Garage” and “Trading Spaces,” the new education division is out to prove that Discovery still knows how to dish out the broccoli.

The education business combines United Learning’s offerings with Discovery’s existing Discovery Channel School products, which include educational videotapes, CD-ROMs and print materials. Discovery has also participated in Cable in the Classroom, a not-for-profit cable industry initiative to provide programming to students.

Discovery executives stress, however, that the new venture is about making money, not just being good citizens.

Donald Baer, Discovery Communications’ senior executive vice president for strategy and development, noted that unitedstreaming takes advantage of existing distribution channels, rising demand and cheap content in the form of Discovery’s vast video library.

About 99 percent of the 90,000 schools — and 92 percent of classrooms — in the United States are wired for broadband, thanks to education-rate, or “e-rate,” legislation passed as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

United Learning signed up 25,000 schools for unitedstreaming. Discovery aims to boost that number to about 80,000. At an average subscription cost of about $1,000 per school — less than a new set of textbooks — Discovery is looking at a potential multimillion-dollar revenue stream.

“If you add up the total, it begins to be a pretty big business,” Baer said.

Playing a bigger role in the classroom “reinforces brand quality,” he added. “The long-term hope is that as households become better wired, we can provide a digital library. ... Once we deliver in the education field, Discovery will be the brand you can trust and bring into the home.”

Discovery Education’s future customers — as envisioned by Steve Sidel, executive vice president of Discovery Education — could include “baby boomers who want to study art history or molecular biology but don’t want to get a degree.”

Discovery is ramping up its sales staff and recently began offering a free trial to one school in every school district that doesn’t have unitedstreaming.