Discovery Gets Ready for Another Record Upfront

First-ever scripted projects

On the eve of the upfront strategy sessions that he likes to characterize as “actuary meetings,” Joe Abruzzese is in a particularly expansive mood. He’s just returned from Chicago, where Discovery Communications works the kinks out of its New York upfront presentation, and a leather case embossed with the name of his favorite Windy City steak house, The Capital Grille, crouches on his desk.

Opening the case with a flourish, the Discovery ad sales president reveals four steak knives nestled in a bed of velvet. “This is my motivational tool for our next sales meeting. ‘Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives,’” Abruzzese joked, riffing on the Alec Baldwin monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross. “‘Third prize is you’re fired.’ Sorry, wrong business.”

Clearly, no one in the Discovery sales apparatus is in danger of getting tossed out into the street. Last year, Abruzzese and his team generated a record $1.46 billion in ad sales, an increase of 9 percent versus 2011. And if the scatter market is any indication, there’s every reason to expect more of the same this time around.

When he takes the stage at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall on April 4, Abruzzese will offer advertisers an opportunity to invest in the first-ever Discovery-minted scripted projects. Based on Charlotte Gray’s 2011 novel Gold Diggers, the miniseries Klondike is a period piece about the men and women who were drawn to the Yukon in search of mineral wealth. Along with the expected trappings of greed—this would be history’s last great gold rush—the wealth seekers must also contend with the attendant miseries of the subarctic environment. (If frostbite doesn’t take your toes, dysentery will rob you of everything else.)

Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Abbie Cornish, Ian Hart and Tim Roth, Klondike will premiere on Discovery Channel in 2014.

Also in the works: 73 Seconds, a film about physicist Richard Feynman’s investigation into the 1986 Challenger disaster. A sobering inquiry into the catastrophe that marked the beginning of the end of the Space Shuttle program, 73 Seconds stars William Hurt as Feynman. The film will premiere later this year on the Science channel.

With Chicago having gone off without a hitch, Abruzzese’s focus is on this Thursday’s main event. He allowed that the upfront presentation offers more sizzle than steak, as it’s still far too early to get a read on the marketplace. “No one person, no one organization knows more than 30 percent of the overall picture,” he said. “You can be the biggest agency, the biggest network group, and you still can only see what’s on your own plate.”

That said, some of the core categories already appear promising. Microsoft seems poised to continue its marketing blitz behind Windows 8, and a new Apple release is as inevitable as the tides. The zero-sum telecom battle ensures that mobile dollars will never be in short supply, and studio activity is encouraging. Auto remains an unknown quantity, though some media buyers expect a significant increase in the volume of 2014 releases.

In a break from convention, upfront attendees won’t be told to holster their smartphones. “We’re going to encourage people to turn on their cellphones and iPads,” Abruzzese said, noting that the presentation is designed to accommodate the two-screen experience. Buyers and clients will be invited at the event to download an app permitting them to follow along on their mobile devices.

“There’s a utility to it that I liked,” said a TV buyer who used the feature at the Chicago upfront. “I marked the clips I liked…so I’ll remember them when I sit down again with Joe in June.”

And those meetings should be fruitful. “With nine networks, I have a hard time believing we can’t write a piece of every business,” said Abruzzese. “Shame on us if we can’t.”