Discovery Chief Won't Rule Out Return to Mount Everest

"We'll take some time and start taking some cues from the community, from Joby and where we are in a year in our live strategy. We have a lot of things to consider," Discovery's Eileen O'Neill tells THR.
Discovery Channel
Joby Ogwyn

Following Friday's deadly avalanche at Mount Everest, Discovery canceled its planned live jump and will instead use the footage camera crews on-site collected as a special exploring the dangers of the region.

Despite having to cancel Joby Ogwyn's attempt to undertake the first wingsuit flight off the summit of Mount Everest, Eileen O'Neill, group president of Discovery Channel, Science Channel and Velocity, tells The Hollywood Reporter that the tragedy will not put a damper on its live event business.

Here, O'Neill discusses the decision to cancel the jump, the potential to return to Mount Everest with Ogwyn and how the daredevil and his expedition leader helped with rescue efforts, all of which will be documented in the special.  

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How will the Mount Everest tragedy change how you approach these big live death-defying programs going forward? Will this have a chilling effect on the genre in general?

The event was disrupted and canceled by an act of God and nature. That's something we always prepare for. We're going to continue to do events we feel are responsible and are excited about and we're really well prepared for. Joby and the expedition teams, NBC and us were ready for anything. We knew there was a chance that forces of nature could disrupt this at different times and this one turned out to be catastrophic. We reacted accordingly. We're sobered by the things that we prepared for when they actually happen -- but it's not going to dissuade us from doing very smart projects.

Will the tragedy at Everest change your approach or how you prepare for these big live events?

We're going to continue to do what we have done, which is usually up to a year of preparation before we get to air. That preparation is pretty exhaustive: from the perspective of what event and who's doing it to the production approach and design, which as you can imagine for those circumstances was pretty complex. We establish protocols that are mirrored to the nature of the circumstances. Anything we decide to do, no matter what the scale and scope of it is, we have to put an exhaustive amount of preparation and research into it. This one was outside of anybody's control.

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What happens to the sponsorship deals you had in place with GoPro and Falken Tire? Do you have to return the money or are they going to put them in another Discovery event?

Those conversations are just starting. We've got long-standing and new partners as part of the Everest project so they're just digging in on the ad sales side as to what will happen there. 

Would you ever attempt an Everest jump again with Joby?

We've had that discussion a bit and it's definitely too soon. It starts with a full evaluation of what those circumstances might look like. Part of the cancellation this year was the realization that the mountain was going to be closed for the foreseeable future. Whether it's for the entire season or not remains to be seen. How that community reacts to this is going to dictate first and foremost what we might consider in the future. Certainly Joby, who is pretty raw himself, having lost people that he not only was relying on but had deep relationships with. That's obviously a very devastating situation for him. We'll take some time and start taking some cues from the community, from Joby and where we are in a year in our live strategy. We have a lot of things to consider.

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Take me into the discussion to cancel the jump. What were those conversations like? How much was Joby a part of that, considering he tweeted over the weekend that he was planning on doing the jump?

There were a lot of around-the-clock conversations, many of them hampered by time zones and quality of communication. Whether it's texts, emails, phone calls, tweets or Facebook, the reliability of all that is very suspect in that area of the world. We're key participants, whether it was Joby or his expedition leader, Garrett Madison, or the head of the Alpine Ascents, which was the expedition group for our NBC partners and that crew to get them was an arduous issue for us to get our communication. What it was like was trying to make certain we were getting information as timely as possible that was as accurate as possible and making decisions there. Certainly, the immediate recognition of the devastation to the Sherpa community and specifically to a few people that were in our expeditions was a significant blow. It was a matter of understanding other factors as to whether we know unequivocally information like when the mountain could reopen, what was the stability of the mountain? No one has really been able to understand exactly what happened entirely or what the potential is for more, not that anything is terribly predictable at Everest, but because they haven't been able to get back on the mountain. We had to make a decision with some information, not all. The information that we did know of led us to the decision that it wouldn't make sense to continue forward. Between the time zones and communication, Joby obviously had a natural emotional reaction to the events -- communication just missed each other.

What was your conversation like with Joby when it came time to cancel it?

Joby is a tremendous person who had this adventure and dream in mind for a long time, but he also was incredibly sad at what had happened. His focus instantly became the Sherpa community at large and the people that he was deeply connected to. His emotions were all over the place. His concern was, to a degree, was how his relationship with the Sherpa shaped his initial reactions and questions of if he should continue on in the way people feel like it's a tribute to continue a mission. He struggled with what was the right decision at that point.

How much did the camera crew capture in terms of the aftermath of the avalanche?

We're still sifting through what we'll ultimately have. We had some camera people and producers there that were documenting the reaction in base camp and the events happening there. There were other filmmakers that were at the camp as well. We're just starting to hear and see what they have. We know there are a lot of first-person experiences with helping with rescue -- Garrett and Joby were involved in that. Some of it is in-the-moment footage from the base camp, not when the event was happening but afterward. We have a lot of interviews from not only our team but other climbers and their experiences on that day.

When did the possibility of turning the footage for the jump into a documentary surface?

We were working over the weekend and realized our team was there and it was one of self-generating moments when you realize that we were witness to history, as devastating as it was, and the story needed to be told. In terms of coverage, because they were there to document an event, that naturally continued to happen and by Monday we realized there was a story to be told there and we made the decision to create a special for it.

Do you still have people there?

We're in the process of wrapping up. There's not a lot going on at base camp as teams have been collecting their gear and heading out. As you can imagine, there's a lot of logistics to figure out. Base camp is certainly getting quieter, especially while the community makes final decisions as to if and when the mountain is opening -- meaning getting permits for people to climb at any point this season. Our team will probably be out of there by the end of the week.

How involved will NBC News' Peacock Productions be?

They're still our production partner, so they will be producing with us.

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Does having to cancel Everest put a damper on Nik Wallenda's Chicago skywire event? Will it change your approach?

Our approach is highly responsible and thorough. This was an act of God that was tragic, regardless of if our team was there for an event or not. It's our responsibility to continue to look at certain events or adventures that are presented to us and we're highly selective on it. We'll only do a few and they are thoroughly vetted.

Do you know which buildings in Chicago Nik will be walking between?

Not yet.

What kinds of precautions did you have in place for if something horrible like the avalanche were to have happened during the live broadcast? How prepared are you for that?

We know we're really prepared for those. We take the responsibility of what content we share with our audience very seriously. As you can imagine, there were all types of concerns and considerations at any phase of a live event -- start, middle or finish -- that something could happen. The experience we have now working with NBC on a couple of these projects, we've learned a lot but tend to be very conservative in anticipating and imagining problems and how to manage through them.  

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What if something had happened during one of your other events? What kind of protocol do you have in place if something goes wrong on air?

We have delays, as you can imagine, so we wouldn't anticipate sharing anything tragic live. We put in place protocols for both the broadcast side and the digital side. We give instructions to directors and camera people for certain reactions to things. We have scripts, we have a multi-point protocol established based on whatever type of event we're working on.

What kind of role will Joby have in the special? Are you close to naming a charity yet?

Joby is definitely going to participate in the special. Some of it is orienting the viewer to why our cameras were there and his event was the catalyst for that and that shifted dramatically. We'll have footage of him there, we'll be interviewing him, as he was involved in recovery and in sharing his reflections on the Sherpa community. He had relationships with the ones that were going to be on his team, he has summited three times and is very familiar with that community. He's eager to share his views and impression on how amazing the Sherpa are. In terms of charity, we haven't identified the name of the charity that we'll be working with, but we are hoping that contributions will be made and we will certainly be supporting that as well. We're in the final vetting stages of finding the most appropriate one right now.

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