Cup 50

Person: Clark Bunting

Drink: Medium house coffee 

Date: September 19, 2011

Location: The cafe inside the Discovery Channel headquarters 

Clark Bunting is the president and general manager of Discovery Channel. For the past 25 years, he has been a part of the team that has brought programs like Planet Earth, Shark Week, and Deadliest Catch to life.

He’s also a proud Spartan so I reached out to him to see if he’d meet me for coffee. 

He said yes and a few weeks later I was at the Discovery Headquarters outside of Washington, DC. When I walked into the lobby I found a massive dinosaur skeleton, walls lined with photos of network celebrities, and a great assortment of memorabilia from Discovery shows. 

(A month after getting coffee I ran into Clark at Michigan State at an awards gala).

After going through security, Clark’s assistant Laurie met me in the lobby. We took the elevator up to Clark’s floor and I waited for him in a small conference room (where a picture of Dirty Jobs star Mike Rowe covered in mud stared at me). Clark walked in and introduced himself before we jumped into a conversation that continued as we took the elevator down to get coffee on the first floor. 

Clark is often called the guy that started Shark Week, so I couldn’t resist asking him how he felt being known for such a cult classic TV event. He quickly pointed out that it was a team effort before sharing a few amusing stories from the production. From working with Andy Samburg to orchestrating live video shoots of sharks feeding in the middle of the ocean, it’s obvious that Clark’s job is really cool. 

He had plenty of stories to share with me as we headed back to the small conference room to continue our conversation about the experiences and insights he’s picked up during his last 25 years at Discovery.

Clark’s original plan was a career on Capitol Hill. After receiving a master’s degree from Michigan State University, he and his wife moved to Washington, DC where he got a job working as a legislative assistant. It was during this job that he realized politics might not be the route for him. He looked at many of the lifestyles of the people that had been on the hill for years; perpetually stressed and overworked, a high number of failed marriages, and problems with substance abuse. It wasn’t the lifestyle he wanted so he decided to look for a job elsewhere.
The job he found was with a very young company called Cable Educational Network. He met with the founder, John Hendricks, and realized they shared a similar vision and entrepreneurial spirit. At the time, a big void existed in television programming—there were news, sports, and entertainment channels, but nothing educational. Cable Educational Network set out to change that. The company grew rapidly, changed their name to Discovery Channel, and became the most distributed channel in the world. 

Clark, who was one of the original employees, played a pivotal role in the company’s growth. He helped bring many of Discovery’s popular programs to life before taking over as president in 2010. It’s a role that he takes very seriously because the shows they produce have an impact on millions of viewers around the world. It’s also a role that has led to a lot of fun. 
At one point in his career he was dangling a dead chicken over a hungry croc while Steve Irwin coached him through the feeding process (certainly nothing he expected when he responded to the classified ad). Clark said moments like that make you pause and think—how did I get myself into this position?

The answer to that question is a bit of luck mixed with creativity, passion and a lot of hard work. More importantly, he found meaning in the work. Discovery Channel uses the power of entertainment to bring light to important issues. Clark used Steve Irwin as an example. The two became close friends when Clark helped create and produce The Crocodile Hunter. The show, which became wildly popular, served a greater role than just entertainment. Clark said Steve’s genius was his ability to get people to care. He wasn’t just a crazy Aussie playing with reptiles—he was a passionate environmentalist that helped people see the world from a new perspective and generate positive environmental change. 

Clark explained that Discovery has succeeded because two things hold true for people: 1) they are naturally curious, and 2) they love to hear a good story. The Crocodile Hunter wasn’t the only show that told intriguing stories that served a greater purpose; Planet Earth was a remarkable series that let people gain a new appreciation and concern for the environment, Shark Week helped pass a law to ban shark finning, and shows like Myth Busters get viewers excited about science. 

As I listened to Clark talk, I was fascinated by the realization that he ultimately achieved the goal he was pursuing on Capitol Hill—but he had to leave the Hill to do it.  His goal was to affect laws and generate positive change. While he thought politics would be the way to do that, he discovered that entertainment was actually the solution. It reminded me of something Randy Pausch said in his famous Last Lecture:

“It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life, … If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.” 

Clark has lived his life around a certain moral foundation—he wanted to lead a good life for himself and his family, and he wanted to do work that mattered. It may have been a stroke of luck that he stumbled into a great opportunity, but luck won’t make you the president of a major company—Clark has worked hard to make Discovery Channel something fantastic.  He leads his life with integrity and the result is an incredible career that has changed lives. 

There were a lot of personal take-aways from Cup 50, but the most valuable lesson is a reminder that the way you get from Point A (the start of a career) to Point B (the end) isn’t going to be a straight line. But if you keep moving forward, if you have a goal you’re shooting for—and the right mix of hard work and passion—you’ll get there. 

Probably not in the way you expect. 

Or in the time frame you think. 

But if you persevere and live right—you’ll get there, and hopefully have fun in the process.