David Zaslav on what he’s discovered about Discovery

The third day of the Realscreen Summit kicked off with a keynote interview with David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications LLC. In a conversation with Original Productions' Thom Beers, Zaslav spoke about reviving TLC with Eileen O'Neill, plans for Animal Planet and much more.
February 4, 2009

When David Zaslav took the helm at Discovery Communications January 2007, he reevaluated all of the networks under its umbrella. A lot of content moved off of Discovery, such as the car content, tattoo and crime and forensics, with a renewed focus on what was there. It was the kind of exercise the company went through with TLC, and are currently in ‘inning two’ of Animal Planet’s shifting of programming. In his keynote interview at the Realscreen Summit, Zaslav said that Animal Planet is growing and he has big hopes for the Science Channel to become a go-to network like History.

Zaslav’s interviewer, Original Productions’ Thom Beers asked what it is that makes a program a Discovery show and Zaslav emphasized the preference for unique, well-done stories with emotion. ‘Deadliest Catch works because you care about those guys. We need to be different,’ Zaslav said. ‘I’ve been around content long enough to see that copying content almost never works. I would rather put on a show that completely flops but tells a story in a different way. MythBusters is a success but we’re not going to make 10 different MythBusters.’

As for what doesn’t work, Zaslav admitted that the past year and a half with TLC was a learning process. ‘We learned a lot through the past year and a half with TLC,’ he said. Two years ago, TLC was one of the top five women’s networks and an attempt was made to move the brand to higher-end west coast programming. Zaslav said it didn’t work. ‘We didn’t understand the brand. It took us a long time to figure it out and it cost a fair amount along the way,’ he says. ‘We started doing dance contests and shows that looked a lot like Project Runway and what was on Bravo and A&E and that wasn’t TLC. TLC is mostly about Middle America and heart.’ The network went down 30% but has since won it back with hits like Jon & Kate Plus 8 and 18 Kids and Counting. Zaslav attributes the rebound to the presence of Eileen O’Neill who has been there since July.

A good example of the retooling is the TLC show Say Yes to the Dress which was originally conceived about the New York City bridal store Kleinfeld and the characters behind the store. While the show received okay numbers, the realization came that the Kleinfeld characters weren’t quite on brand and they changed the show to make it more about the woman getting married. Then it became a TLC story.

With TLC back on track, Zaslav and his team are working on other networks like Animal Planet. Says Zaslav, ‘Marjorie Kaplan and her team came up with the idea of a more aggressive and authentic Animal Planet’ which has moved away from G rated programming to show the real nature of animals, which definitely isn’t G-rated.

Looking ahead, Zaslav is optimistic about the upcoming launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network, which is operating by the mandate of ‘Live Your Best Life.’ Winfrey has been very involved so far and Zaslav feels that the message she’s trying to portray is perfect for the mood of viewers during the economic downturn. ‘It’s a big challenge, that we can launch a network that is true to her message,’ said Zaslav.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.