The path to Discovery: Q&A with Discovery Canada’s Paul Lewis

As president and general manager of one of Canada's most recognizable specialties, Paul Lewis has some advantages his cable cohorts don't enjoy. But that hasn't kept him complacent. In fact, as the channel approaches its 15th year, the Discovery Channel topper believes it's all about evolving... or risking extinction.
September 21, 2009

As president and general manager of one of Canada’s most recognizable specialties, Paul Lewis has some advantages his cable cohorts don’t enjoy. But that hasn’t kept him complacent. In fact, as the channel approaches its 15th year, the Discovery Channel topper believes it’s all about evolving… or risking extinction.

We can’t really start with anything other than the elephant in the corner: the economy. How has the downturn affected your day-to-day?
Frankly, from a financial perspective, I think it’s fair to say that for the first time in 15 years, or at least since I’ve been president for the last seven years, that because of ad sales we are actually trying to cope with a smaller amount of dollars on the programming side. That is a big challenge. We are [evaluating] a lot of projects that have been submitted to us over the last six months and really trying to focus on what we think are going to be the big hits.

Does the strength of the Discovery brand insulate you?
I think that everybody is feeling it. The big anomaly here is: certainly advertising revenues are challenging for everybody, but at the same time we’ve had very significant audience growth this year, especially in primetime. The problem with this economy is that it doesn’t particularly matter if you are getting audience growth or not, you are not able to translate that into advertising revenue, which then gets funneled into programming dollars down the road.

We have to be a bit patient with the economy. It seems to be turning around a bit, but I think that it is going to take a while for that to trickle down to advertising revenues. And it will take a little time after that for us to be able to commission at the same level that we were a year or two years ago.

How has the downturn affected your program buying?
There is no doubt we’re taking fewer risks than we normally would on our programming, but I think it is still important, strategically, to try new things. We’re trying to keep ourselves ahead of the rest of the television universe.
The best way for us to minimize our risk is to really understand our audience. It’s not acceptable anymore to say: ‘You know, we have adults 25 to 54, skewing male.’ We have really drilled down on that and we have done a lot of original research to figure out who the audience is; not just demographics, but their lifestyle, their trends, how they are connecting to our content. And, this is not just through TV but mobile and the Internet.
That is really the biggest tool we have now when we are meeting with producers. We share as much of that information as we can so that we really get something that is focused, not just at – I won’t just call it ‘the audience’ – but the various groups that make up our audience.
Another way to offset our risk is to take successful formats and adapt them into Canada – whether that is Cash Cab, or Canada’s Worst Handyman or Canada’s Worst Driver (which Proper Television has produced for us over the years and has been highly successful).

How do you explain the complex nature of your viewership to producers?
It’s really like playing 3D chess. We are looking at it from a nightly basis, and what our competition is on each night. But we’re also looking at building the schedule each night from 7 p.m. though to 11 p.m., and figuring out what the correct flow should be.
We’ll meet with key producers, we’ll share this information with them, and we’ll challenge them to come back to us with ideas.

How are you adapting?
When we are looking at projects, I would say: the more platforms, the better. We have been looking at some really interesting concepts that break down the notion of the half-hour, the one-hour format. Can we make interstitials – three- or four-minute pieces – work on television as well as on the Internet? We’re reaching out to those loyal audiences that recognize our brand, and not just in new media, but traditional media, too. In the last year, we got into books and are trying to extend our Daily Planet show there. There are different ways to fight the clutter and break out.

Should producers arrive with those ideas?
I think it’s always preferential. I am much more impressed by a production company that has done all that thinking up-front. It just tells me that they are really understanding the marketplace right now. And you know, the earlier in the thought process the multi-platform has been thought through, I think the more successful the project [is] at the end of the day. So, I really do urge producers to come to us with a fully fleshed-out plan.

There’s much debate around how far you can push the factual format. Is that a concern for you? Is there a line?
You know, I don’t think there is a line anymore. I think some people are traditionalists and try to hold on to the traditional definition of a point-of-view doc. But, at the end of the day, does it really matter? The audience doesn’t differentiate. They just know the difference between a good story and a bad story. To me, if there’s a strong story with a beginning, a middle and an end, it is a documentary.
I think the definitions are sometimes relevant to funders and regulators, but I don’t think they are really relevant to us anymore.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.