Discovery Sets Growth Prospects On Crime, Women & Wrongs – Upfronts

Jeremy Gerard

Discovery Communications set out a lavish breakfast for reporters this morning, pitching the content across its 14 channels in an improving advertising climate, which chief executive officer David Zaslav described as “a bit better” in the U.S. “We’re starting to see a decelertion” of attrition in the market, with “80% of the deals in the high-single- to double-digits.”

Growth outside the U.S. has been much better, Zaslav said, especially in sports programming, dominated at home by ESPN. Discovery’s Eurosports has been a star advertising vehicle. “We used to look at content as a rectangle,” Zaslav said. “Now we look at it as a pyramid,” with content straddling all platforms and even genres to bring value to advertisers.

Case in point: TLC’s president Nancy Daniels discussing a new deal with Tyler Perry — who so far has produced two hits for Oprah Winfrey’s competing network OWN — to create a scripted series for TLC with the working title Too Close To Home. It’s about “a young woman who escaped her working-class upbringing to discover unparalleled success in the fast-paced D.C. political circuit, only to find herself at the center of a scandal. After a steamy affair with a married senator makes national headlines, she is forced to return back to her trailer park beginnings, where her past, and everyone in it, resurfaces to complicate everything.”

Tyler PerryDaniels was questioned about the rationale behind getting into the scripted business and tap-danced slightly around an answer that was obvious: Perry is a hitmaker, and TLC needs hits. Calling the Perry show “sexy, steamy, hot,” she enthused that the addition to the lineup is “a huge event.”

Daniels also was questioned about the near-total absence in TLC’s promotional film of Duggar sisters Jessa and Jill,who were at the center of the scandal that led to the cancellation of 19 Kids And Counting. Daniels described the sisters as heroes to fans of the spinoff Counting On — especially in the wake of advertiser resistance to any connection with the Duggar family.

Animals and criminals continue to exert a powerful presence across the Discovery network especially at Animal Planet, coming on its 20th anniversary. “Animal Planet is alive with passion and adventure, with animals at the forefront of our programming,” said Rich Ross, group president of Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Science Channel. “We are excited that joining our great franchise series will be new tentpole events, unscripted series and blue chip specials.”

Among the new shows: Texas Vets (working title), about two competitive brothers who share a veterinary practice in Houston, and Life Of Dogs (working title) about, well, the life of dogs. Also interesting from the science perspective of the channel’s offerings is Life After Chernobyl, a special that will look at life in the area 30 years after the worst nuclear meltdown in history.

Henry Schleiff, the veteran programmer who heads up the Investigation Discovery, American Heroes and Destination America channels, brought plenty of humor along with his pitches, which notably A CRIME TO REMEMBERinclude another look at O.J. Simpson, following the conclusion of FX’s The People V. O.J. Simpson and another Juice program coming this summer. Investigation Discovery will complete the hat trick in early 2017 with Hard Evidence: OJ Is Innocent, executive produced and narrated by Martin Sheen.

“I always thought he did it,” Schleiff, a founding father of reality television, said of Simpson, adding that he’d “pushed back” when he was first told about Dallas private eye William C. Dear, who spent 21 years collecting evidence he claims proves Simpson’s innocence in the murders of his wife, Nicole, and Ron Goldman. “This was so different, so compelling,” Schleiff said, that he just had to get behind it.

Taking questions, Zaslav argued that the cable betes noirs of bundling and cord-cutting had been overhyped and that “skinny bundles” are “four to five years away,” adding that while people say they don’t want to pay less for only the channels they want, in truth they want it all.

After the event concluded, I asked him how all these channels with all their content hoped to break out of the programming stew that viewers confront each time they click open guide on their screens. He referred to the advantages of cross-promotion across the Discovery network, and the dawning value of the Internet. “Four years ago it was zero,” he said of Discovery’s engagement with social media. “Now, it’s a lot. But yeah, it’s a problem.”

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