Discovery Communications Is Thinking Globally (and Digitally) With Advertising Bouncing Back

Business 'significantly more positive' after U.S. declines

Discovery Communications will be interacting with U.S. buyers and advertisers during this year's upfront presentations as always, but the company has shifted to a global focus on its content.

"The basic elements of our business have turned significantly more positive," said David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications, at an upfront press breakfast today. "We're spending more money on content and our brands. Our primary focus is growing audience around the world." (The company spends more than $2 billion annually on content.)

For a second year, the company is eschewing its traditional upfront gala in favor of holding 14 agency presentations around the country. As part of his upfront message, Zaslav pointed to "deceleration" of Discovery's recent U.S. declines, noting that last year, advertising was "flat to down, and this year is up."

Discovery's business is booming internationally; the company has been "diversifying" its intellectual property worldwide, said Zaslav, adding that Discovery is "following [ESPN's] road map for sports dominance in Europe." It has gone direct to consumer there with its Eurosport app, and Zaslav suggested the company could one day offer direct-to-consumer options in the U.S. for properties like Discovery Family or Velocity, especially if consumers gravitate toward skinny bundles.

"We used to think of content as a rectangle that goes on a television set. We look at it as a pyramid now," said Zaslav of the company's recent efforts to expand digitally. 

Discovery is looking to reach millennials via Discovery Go, its new authenticated app, and what it calls "Web-native" apps like Seeker ("for bright, curious millennials" interested in science, culture and world events, said chief commercial officer Paul Guyardo) and SourceFed Studios, led by YouTube personality Philip DeFranco.

Discovery Communications, combined its linear and digital ad sales teams in advance of the upfront, is touting One Discovery, a new platform of marketing assets that pairs its content with new innovations in data and digital—including virtual reality and its new data product, Discovery Engage. For this upfront, the company wants to work with five or six clients "who really want to lean in on audience-based buying [with Discovery Engage]," said Guyardo.

While Zaslav said his properties will focus more on specific audiences and genres—"We're going to do less that's broad and more that nurtures a specific audience," he said—some of his networks announced new series (see below) that seemed to expand beyond their comfort zones with both Discovery and TLC venturing into scripted series.

Here are programming highlights from Discovery Communications' upfront slate:

  • Discovery will introduce 20 new series, including its first two scripted series: Harley and the Davidsons (a miniseries about the two Milwaukee childhood friends who created Harley-Davidson) and Manifesto (which follows the 18-year hunt for the "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski). It also has a Deadliest Catch spinoff, Dungeon Cove (which follows Newport, Ore. fisherman), Cooper's Treasure (a documentary series about an astronaut's treasure map that he secretly created from space in the '60s) and The Wheel (a Survivor-like competition in which extreme survival experts are dropped into different South American environments; when one competitor drops out, the rest are rotated to a different locale).
  • TLC is launching its first scripted series, Too Close to Home, produced by Tyler Perry, about a D.C. player who has to return to her trailer-park roots after being involved in a D.C. scandal. "This is a big swing for us, but it's something we're excited about," said Nancy Daniels, president, TLC and Discovery Life. The channel is also returning to its Trading Spaces roots with design shows like Married to Design: Nate & Jeremiah (design couple Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent renovate homes while raising their daughter, Poppy) and Project Playhouse (a family shop, Charmed Playhouses, that creates over-the-top backyard playhouses). And because it can't get enough shows about large families, it has also picked up OutDaughter (about the family of the only all-female set of quintuplets in the U.S. and Meet the Putnams (three generations and 25 people living under one roof).
  • Animal Planet celebrates its 20th anniversary with a new documentary series, Animal Planet Presents, as well as series The Zoo (which goes behind the scenes at New York's Bronx Zoo), Texas Vets (two veterinarians who move to Houston and open a veterinarian hospital and animal shelter) and Penn Vet (about fourth-year students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine)
  • Investigation Discovery will premiere new episodes of its series 360 nights this year. New shows include People Magazine Investigates (a look at crime stories featured in People), The Vanishing Women (a multiplatform series that follows an active investigation in an Ohio small town, where six women have gone missing) and a 2017 miniseries Hard Evidence: OJ is Innocent, executive produced and narrated by Martin Sheen, which makes the case for O.J. Simpson's innocence in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. "You may agree or disagree with the take on this, but I think it's really fascinating," said Henry Schleiff, group president for ID, American Heroes Channel and Destination America.
  • Science Channel is bringing back Punkin Chunkin (where engineers and builders try to devise new ways to propel a pumpkin the farthest) and launching Search for the Next Mythbusters, a new franchise that will look to find replacements for Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, whose Mythbusters series ran for 15 seasons on Discovery.
  • American Heroes Channel, which now that H2 has been replaced by Viceland is "the one and only network dedicated full-time to the broad and popular genre of History," said Schleiff, will offer Civil War Chronicles, where the war's biggest battles are told from various soldiers' points of view.
  • Destination America is pivoting from the great outdoors to supernatural fare, after Paranormal Lockdown was highest-rated series launch in network history. Its slate includes Ghost Brothers (three best friends who investigate paranormal activity) and Ghosts of Shepherdstown (a look at "the most haunted town in America," Shepherdstown, W. Va.).
  • Velocity is debuting Speed is the New Black (a St. Louis studio that builds custom cars for clients), Wild Rides Alaska (a shop constructs vehicles that must hold up in Alaskan terrain) and RMD Design (and urban automotive design and build shop).