MIPDoc ’15: DNI’s Craig looks to rival BBC in nat’l history, encourages “hunches”

Phil Craig (pictured) - executive VP and COO at Discovery Networks International - is encouraging producers to act on their hunches and bring the company content it "would have commissioned 15 years ago."
April 13, 2015

Phil Craig (pictured) – executive VP and COO at Discovery Networks International (DNI) - is encouraging producers to act on their hunches and bring the company content it “would have commissioned 15 years ago.”

In a Sunday (April 12) keynote during MIPDoc in Cannes, the exec – a former producer who previously served as head of factual for ABC Australia before joining DNI in February – discussed his direction for the brand, and his intention to loosen Discovery’s filter and invite ideas that producers would have brought them 10 to 15 years ago, rather than in recent years.

“Four or five years ago, when I was last pitching to U.S. networks, I did feel that there was a kind of filtering problem,” Craig told the audience. “The messages coming out of Discovery to the producers were more about what they didn’t want sometimes, than what they did. And it was part of an era when Discovery, like many other channels, pursued a fairly narrow audience.

“Bring us hunches,” Craig advised. “And that doesn’t apply to everybody – it’s not a job creation scheme – but the people we know and trust and work with, bring us a hunch. Have a creative back and forth with us. I did sometimes feel this was lacking in the past.”

Based in London, Craig leads an international production and development team that spans Silver Spring, New York, Miami, London and Singapore, and which supplies content to more than 220 countries. The exec pointed out that commissioning will be out of the UK but that DNI is engaging with producers all over the world.

Craig later showed a sizzle for DNI’s first major natural history commission Life of Dogs, which he previously billed as a “new chip” entry, described as a “blending of traditional blue chip natural history with a new style of immersive, revelatory storytelling.” When asked to elaborate on the new genre, Craig said he may have coined the phrase but he’s not entirely sure what it means.

“I want people to help me discover it,” said Craig. “I think this particular show is a good example of somebody taking a classic genre, but they’re treating it in a way that will work in 2015, 2016.”

When asked whether the natural history push was meant to fill the gap previously occupied by Discovery’s long-running relationship with the BBC – which ended in October 2013 – the exec said it’s “exactly to do that,” adding that he wants to put a stake in the ground and establish a unit at DNI that could rival BBC Bristol.

The conversation later focused on Discovery Communications and Liberty Global’s May 2014 takeover of UK producer-distributor All3Media, and the roster of in-house prodcos now accessible to DNI.

“Of course the Lions and the Bettys and the Raw TVs have a different relationship with us – it has to be different – but I don’t think David Zaslav bought those companies just so they could make shows for Discovery,” said Craig, adding that he is commissioning at least 110 hours this year, and about 20 series. “From my perspective, the more they make great shows for Nat Geo or Channel 4, the more they’ll hone their creative skill and be even better for us.”

Meanwhile, commenting on DNI’s relationship with the U.S. mothership, Craig said the company has a good history of making programs that work in both the U.S. and overseas and that there has been a “meeting of minds” between himself and Discovery Channel president Rich Ross.

“He was talking about a return to core brand values; he was talking about shows with purpose and shows that genuinely take a campaign and take the heft of Discovery behind it,” said Craig, adding later that Ross’s entertainment-driven background will mean changes for the American slate, but will still have journalism at heart.

As for Discovery’s recent foray into scripted with the series Harley-Davidson, Craig revealed that DNI is also developing a scripted special – set to roll out in 12 to 18 months – but nothing on the scale of Discovery Channel’s project.

“Rich has talked about 12 to 16 hours in the first year, and obviously we’re all going to look at how that does around the world before we leap in,” he said, adding that he’s looking at topics such as military and big summits but is proceeding cautiously.

Lastly, looking ahead, the exec said he was aiming to reposition Discovery as a family entertainment destination.

“I think Discovery always was a family brand and some parts of the output drifted away from that, and I think we want to get it back,” he said. “When I was a kid, people came door-to-door selling encyclopaedias, and people bought them because they wanted their kids to grow up with an encyclopaedia in the house. Well, we’re not doing the TV version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but at some level, our shows should speak to families and parents and say, as that kids grows up, ‘We want Discovery in their life.’”


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