Realscreen West ’15: Discovery’s Ross champions docs, diversity

The Discovery Channel president (pictured) said the network will have "the most aggressive documentary and special business on television by next year" during a keynote interview on the second day of Realscreen West in Santa Monica.
June 3, 2015

Discovery Channel president Rich Ross (pictured) doubled down on his promise to make the cable network synonymous with high-end documentaries during a keynote interview at Realscreen West in Santa Monica on Tuesday (June 2).

“We will have by far the most aggressive documentary and special business on television by next year,” Ross said in an interview with The Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan.

In outlining his programming focuses for the year ahead, the former Shine America and Disney exec, Ross said Discovery will dive “headlong” into blue-chip wildlife and natural history and compete with “the Netflixes and the HBOs” at the festival level for feature documentaries.

He told delegates he aims to diversify the cable network’s survival, occupational and car-themed reality programming (“There are a lot of places outside Alaska we can tell these stories”), launch a science weekend that will focus on space; a Saturday morning programming block that will “reactivate” Discovery’s library around environmental and conservation issues, and push into crime and forensics and epic jobs spaces.

When an audience member asked if Discovery would bring back such landmark natural history series as Planet Earth, his response drew applause from the audience: “It’s our mandate. It’s in our DNA to do that. That was a partnership with the BBC. I would like us to be able to drive the ship.”

After he took the reins at Discovery in January, Ross hired former HBO exec John Hoffman to head up the channel’s revitalized doc strategy and acquired Louie PsihoyosRacing Extinction at Sundance, which the network will launch globally later this year. He also made headlines during the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour when he distanced himself from live events and gimmicky event specials.

“I’m not a big fan of stunts because I don’t understand what you’re learning and, at its core, Discovery is an informational brand,” he explained. “I don’t want it to be live for live’s sake. It has to be creative storytelling.”

Asked about another form of live – live tweeting and other social initiatives – Ross said he was taking a more research-based approach to the network’s social agenda. He recently yanked a once-touted scheme to repackage reruns with tweets from the premiere broadcast after research showed that viewers do not care what other viewers think about a show.

He also echoed concerns among network executives regarding audience measurement in the multi-platform age.

“We’re still dealing with a fragmented audience and we’re still using ratings measurements,” he added. “That’s our greatest challenge by far… [Advertisers] want to know who is watching and we have a halfway approach to figuring it out.”

Ross also brought up Caitlyn Jenner, who appeared this week on the cover Vanity Fair to promote her upcoming E! docuseries, and noted how social media strategies have evolved. The Keeping Up with the Kardashians costar formerly known as Bruce Jenner became the fastest person on Twitter to reach a million followers – in just over four hours – when the cover debuted on Monday.

“That was promotion to sell more Vanity Fair than you’ve seen in your life and a show on E!,” he said.

Ross also addressed diversity and appealing to more female audience members. Using the recent series Alaskan Bush People as an example of a show with dual appeal, Ross said that series was re-cut to add more of a dialogue component that would be attractive to women. It was then marketed slightly differently on sister networks with female and male-skews.

“Women came in and saw what they wanted to see and men didn’t notice anything different,” he said. “We have to stop telling women what they should watch and just let them know it’s on.”

He also addressed diversity on Discovery by saying that everyone who works for the company must keep it top of mind, especially when casting.

“It’s every single person’s job to do that,” he said, again to audience applause. “It’s how we have to think. It’s not a department.”

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose.)

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