Summit ’16: DNI’s Kaplan encourages auteur-driven content

At a Realscreen Summit keynote conversation, Discovery Networks International's head of content Marjorie Kaplan encouraged unscripted producers with strong creative visions to make more auteur-driven material.
February 3, 2016

If you ask Marjorie Kaplan, president of content at Discovery Networks International, what distinguishes linear programming from YouTube, she’ll point out the opportunities now in the unscripted world to think like an auteur and make creator-led content.

The Discovery exec – just four months into her London-based position – took part in a keynote conversation on Tuesday (February 2) at the Realscreen Summit with The Guardian journalist Sam Thielman. Referencing such scripted successes as Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black and Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, Kaplan encouraged unscripted content creators to follow suit and place themselves – and their vision – at the center of their material.

“There’s an opportunity in unscripted to think like that. I think there are great storytellers, and that’s a piece that’s different between television and YouTube,” Kaplan told delegates. “If you want real stuff, there’s plenty of that on the web. Our job is how to tell stories differently and I think having a creator at the center is a great way to do that.”

“If you want real stuff, there’s plenty of that on the web. Our job is how to tell stories differently and I think having a creator at the center is a great way to do that.”

One such example is British pubcaster Channel 4′s reality series First Dates, offered Kaplan, who relocated from the U.S. to the UK for the new position.

“What’s interesting to me is that there’s a kind of grace to the show,” she said of the restaurant-set series tracking couples on blind dates. While the U.S. might have taken a “nastier” tack to the situation, First Dates shows a great diversity of daters and provides a strong creative vision, said Kaplan.

“I want people who come to us to believe their shows get better because they come to us, and that requires collaboration,” she said. “Not everyone should be doing creator-led content. Some people have really strong creative vision and you know that they can bring you an idea and you can challenge them with the problem you have, as opposed to telling them what you want to do, and you’ll get a response that’s idiosyncratic.”

Kaplan’s keynote came the day after Courteney Monroe, National Geographic Global Networks CEO, took the same stage to discuss that network’s “fewer, bigger, better” programming strategy, focused on fewer hours and larger, more expensive ideas.

The Discovery Networks International exec, after introducing audiences via clip to Spanish presenter David Beriain, host of Discovery series Clandestine Amazon, also touched on Monroe’s programming mantra, explaining that a show like that isn’t inherently very expensive to make, but it doesn’t mean it’s not great content.

“Are we entering a phase where – because [Clandestine Amazon] looks very insurance-heavy – people are going to spend more on premium-style unscripted content as opposed to [cheaper] genre shows?” asked Thielman.

“We know that there are networks out there that are spending a lot of money on content and I think that’s exciting for content creators. I think the big idea answer, though, is the idea,” explained Kaplan. “Some ideas deserve to be expensive and some ideas are very simple and graceful and don’t need lots of money to execute.

“[Fewer, bigger, better] is the language we’re using now and I think that’s right, but we have to say, ‘What does it really mean?’” continued Kaplan. “Because it can start to feel pretty generic, and anything that’s expensive and shiny can look like an idea but that’s not what it’s really saying. For us, ‘premium’ is what can we do that not everybody else is doing.”

The exec, who pointed out that DNI has yet to announce new content, later addressed the division’s plans for the feature documentary space – a gauntlet thrown down by Rich Ross, group president for Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Science Channel.

The network most recently revealed that it is to air 10 IMAX-produced documentaries over the next 18 months, and at the Sundance Film Festival last month, Discovery also announced a “Discovery Impact” series of environment-focused films.

Without delving into specifics, Kaplan referenced the “Discovery Impact” series, saying that films such as Racing Extinction will fall under this umbrella, and that the strand could expand to become global.

Finally, when asked about competition with SVOD platforms such as Netflix, notorious for being tight-lipped about ratings figures, Kaplan admitted it was a “huge business challenge and sales challenge, but so what?”

“I think our job is to go so what?” she continued. “What’s great stuff that’s out there? For me as a buyer, the fact that there’s more places buying great things just raises the bar. I want to make sure I’m in the right conversation with the right people. If Netflix and Amazon lets them create things they wouldn’t have otherwise, I think that’s great.”

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

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.