(Photo: Rahoul Ghose)
Top execs from Discovery and History & Lifetime fielded questions about copycat programming, 3D content and the future of the cable business during the opening panel on day two of the Realscreen Summit.
Moderated by realscreen magazine editor Barry Walsh, the Big Picture Town Hall session was an opportunity for factual producers attending the four-day conference in Washington, DC’s Renaissance Hotel to pose questions to Discovery Communications chief operating officer Peter Liguori and History & Lifetime president and general manager Nancy Dubuc.
Though there were a few disagreements (and a few good-natured jabs), both agreed that strong investment in content is the best way to compete with broadcasters and attract ad dollars as a portion of viewer eyeballs migrate to new platforms. Following the 2008 economic crash, Liguori said that Discovery became “more efficient on every level,” and still invested in new programming.
Dubuc discussed Lifetime’s increased push into unscripted programming as a response to the perception that Lifetime hasn’t had a great track record in reality. She pointed out that since she took the reins last April, the net has upped the number of fact ent shows from two to 12 with more on the way. “My opinion is we haven’t really tried [reality] in a quality way,” she said. “You can’t tell me reality doesn’t work on Lifetime because 85% of our viewers watch reality.”
Questions concerning programming, specifically dealing with why copycat programs are greenlit and bringing “off-brand” programming to a net, also came up during the Q&A. Dubuc called the prevalence of copycats a “great mystery,” but chalked the trend up to a combination to an industry-wide fear of risk-taking and the belief that derivative programming can be an easy cash grab, even if the show is short-lived.
“You’d be surprised by the amount of pitching that is derivative of something that is on our own air,” Dubuc said. “Just because we have something once, doesn’t mean we want more.” Liguori took a more philosophical approach to the issue by quoting Picasso: “Great art is borrowing, bad art is stealing.”
When an audience member asked why networks continue to buy “off-brand” series, Dubuc articulated History’s core values as being about authenticity, information and male-centric programming. A brand must be flexible enough to evolve with its audience but stick to basic principles. “It’s not about text-book learning,” she said. “The value of our brands will be the currency that allows us to surpass broadcast.”
“I do think we’re a little more brand dogmatic,” Liguori added, referring to Discovery. As for TLC, “There is a definite tone that defines a TLC show,” he said, but “there’s a flexibility there.”
The execs also discussed multi-platform and 3D programming. Dubuc believes ESPN will drive the 3D audience and when the medium blows up, History and Lifetime will react. “We’re a little ways off yet,” she said.
With its yet-to-launch 3D joint venture with Sony and IMAX, 3net, Discovery is collecting and aggregating 3D content in anticipation of the time when 3D-ready television sets become commonplace in American households. Liguori agreed with Dubuc that it’s early days but doesn’t believe sports will be the sole driver. While football and baseball will look great in 3D, other sports will not. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to watch a hockey game from behind the goalie net in 3D,” he said.