Discovery TV Seeks global adventures

The company sees some big growth opportunities in Brazil and India. Ian Burrell meets Discovery president David Zaslav

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The Independent Online

For a global network like Discovery, there's always an upside to natural disaster and climate change. People want to understand what's going wrong with the planet and that hunger for information creates demand for a business that frames itself as "the world's number one non-fiction media company".

The mix of fascination and horror that surrounded the succession of tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and hurricanes over the past five years has coincided with a worldwide push led by the Discovery Communications president and chief executive David Zaslav. "We are a truly global company," he says. Discovery is in 120 countries and has increased profits generated outside the US from $120m (£76m) to more than $540m since Mr Zaslav took over in January 2007.

Discovery's profile in the UK is nothing like as high as it is in its homeland. But a drive to raise the profile of its brands in the UK includes the launch of Alone in the Wild, where macho Brits such as Freddie Flintoff and ex-SAS man Chris Ryan pit their wits against the environment. It's seen as a more realistic jungle challenge than ITV's I'm a Celebrity...Get me Out of Here! and also stars Winter Olympics gold winner Amy Williams and US adventurer Aron Ralston, whose survival story was told in the film 127 Hours.

Discovery covers most areas of factual programming but it is shows like this, about the environment, that are a speciality. Its 12 UK channels are at the fringes of the electronic programme guide, mainly via Sky and Virgin Media but also on Freeview (where it is known as Quest), and cover a broad range of factual programming, though shows on the environment are a speciality.

Mr Zaslav has made provision of new programming central to his strategy. In his time in charge, he has upped investment in content from $600m a year to more than $1bn, finding money from savings elsewhere in the organisation. "If it doesn't provide growth and it's not about content or brands then we are going to focus on reducing that cost so that we can spend more money on content," he said.

The network has responded to extraordinary news events by producing background documentaries on such topics as the Norwegian massacre, the Cumbrian murders and the Japanese tsunami, all intended to explain events rather than compete with traditional news organisations.

Two UK 3D shows are in production and a new format Curiosity, which features presenters from Stephen Hawking to Morgan Spurlock trying to answer "the big questions", launched in the US last month and arrives in the UK in November. Crucial to Discovery's position, Mr Zaslav says, is its library of "high-quality evergreen content" that has retained its value for not having been posted for free on the internet, a tactic followed by other networks. "We didn't see the consumer demand for the content on the web," he says.

But now that there is an appetite for watching programmes on devices other than TVs, he is concerned the conditions must be right. Companies such as Apple should not be so restrictive of broadcast brands and offer content listed only under the name of a show, he says.

"We are fighting for a branding environment," he says. "If our content is going to be on platforms it's much more advantageous for us and users if the brand can be connected to that content and we think we should have advertising. Any time you see a platform that has just the list of shows in alphabetical order without branding and without advertising, that really commoditises our content, so we are much more cautious."

He says Apple is not the only player in the game and big names, such as Netflix, Amazon, Google and Comcast, Time Warner's TV Everywhere internet television initiative, are creating fresh platform opportunities for content creators.

He has invested in digital media with the acquisitions of fact-based websites and the eco-lifestyle Discovery is a heavy user of social media with 80 pages on Facebook that have generated 44 million friends, including 4 million for Born Survivor star Bear Grylls.

"We have a unique advantage," says Mr Zaslav. "The fact that we are non-fiction means that our characters are real, they go to real places and have real adventures. People really relate to them." YouTube is exploited to show short-form clips of shows that increase interest in brands rather than give content away for free.

Discovery launched in UK in 1989 and has had a long-running production relationship with the BBC, which has seen it pioneering HD and 3D with landmark projects such as Planet Earth, Blue Planet and the upcoming Frozen Planet. Discovery also partnered with Oprah Winfrey to launch The Oprah Winfrey Network at the start of the year. But Mr Zaslav prefers to keep things in house if possible. "We look to partnerships only when they bring something that uniquely will stand out in the market." He is excited about the potential for TLC, which has become the top network for women in the US and was launched internationally in 2010.

Mark Hollinger, who heads the global arm, Discovery Networks International, says the firm is aware of the importance of producing local content, rather than parachuting in popular US shows. He has hired the former head of programming at Channel 4, Julian Bellamy, as Creative Director, overseeing the production of shows that will appeal to different international markets.

Discovery has 33 offices outside the US, to help ensure the strength of local content, and runs its international business from four major hubs in London, Warsaw, Singapore and Miami (which oversees Latin America). "It's run locally and that's been one of the keys to our success," says Mr Hollinger. An office has opened in Moscow with another planned in Bulgaria to serve the "big growth area" of central and eastern Europe.

Mr Zaslav says Brazil is "only 20 per cent pay-TV penetrated" and along with India, Russia and Turkey these markets look much like the UK and the US did 10 or 15 years ago.

"With the growth of the middle classes in a lot of these countries, cable becomes a connection that is important. People want their electricity, food, water, good friends ... and TV," Mr Zaslav points out.