The 42nd annual Edinburgh International Television Festival kicked off Wednesday (Aug. 22) with a keynote session in which Discovery’s Nancy Daniels revealed her broader vision for Discovery Channel and Science Channel in the year ahead.
Daniels has enjoyed an 11-year tenure at Discovery, bouncing between TLC and Discovery Channel. In March, the long-time executive assumed a new role within Discovery, Inc., becoming chief brand officer for Discovery and factual with oversight for all creative and brand strategy, development, production, marketing and day-to-day operations for Discovery and Science in the U.S.
Moderator by Jake Kanter, executive editor of Business Insider UK, jumped right into the session by questioning whether the network’s flagship brand, which, like most other networks, has seen its ratings steadily decrease over the years, is a turnaround job.
“In some respects. The brand is still there and is very strong,” said Daniels. “A big focus of ours is definitely getting some new series up and running. We haven’t really had a new breakout hit in a few years, and it’s a huge priority. It’s not for lack of trying – it’s very difficult to find something that breaks through. That’s where I see opportunity.”
Previously, Daniels served as president of TLC, where, over a five-year period, she managed to turn the company’s flagship female-focused channel into a top 10 network for women, doing so on the strength of such long-running hit series as 90 Day Fiancé, The Little Couple, Sister Wives and Outdaughtered.
What she learned in the thick of those dark moments at TLC, she said, was the importance of getting to know and respect the audience by not trying to turn them into something they’re not.
Instead, Daniels said she believes that networks must super-serve their audiences by providing them with more of what’s working. TLC, for example, built 90 Day Fiancé into a strong enough series that it could be spun-off into new formats or boast two-hour episodes on a single night.
“That is a game-changer, and that can change the whole outlook of your network, turning red to green when you’re looking at year-on-year growth,” Daniels explained.
“Another strategy at TLC was what we called ‘Netflix-ing the schedule,’ where we’d do two or three hours of something in a row,” she continued. “Traditionally we shouldn’t do that… but the fact is that everybody is binging and why not give it to them? If they love it enough, they’ll sit and enjoy your content.”
Tentpole event specials are yet another avenue broadcasters can take to multiply its ratings, and one that Discovery, under Daniels’ leadership, is looking to exploit. Capturing the zeitgeist of moment and delivering original content around an anniversary are areas in which Daniels has found work well for the network.
As a result, Discovery is currently looking at a variety of projects for Summer 2019. Of utmost importance will be tackling the the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon, when the Apollo 11 spaceflight allowed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to take mankind’s first steps across the lunar surface.
“There are two areas that our audiences feel haven’t been fully explored: space and the oceans,” said Daniels. “Those feel like final frontiers. We’re definitely looking at, from a natural history perspective, oceans. What are the stories there, what can we explore and what will we find?”
Live programming is becoming an increasingly important tool for broadcasters across the board, and it’s no different for Discovery’s strategy moving forward. Live, says Daniels, has the potential to create experiences that can build community and attract massive audiences.
The media company, she said, is looking at building live programming around Shark Week – which this summer bit into its 30th anniversary – specials and one-off documentaries. To do so, Discovery hired back former Arrow Media executive Howard Swartz in July to oversee the network’s documentaries, specials and live events as SVP of production and development for Discovery Channel.
“I’m excited to do live events,” Daniels said. “I don’t know what they are yet, but we’re constantly talking about it.”
The final area of focus is what Daniels called the “instamentary,” or a quick-turnaround documentary. A prime example was ITN Productions’ hour-long special, Operation Thai Cave Rescue. The one-off focused on the daring rescue of a boys’ soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand and was commissioned before the first rescue attempts were made.
“It worked well in the U.S. but it worked even better for us around the globe,” she noted. “We’ll keep looking for those kinds of things – we don’t know when they’ll happen because they’re usually news relegated, but we haven’t done a lot of them in the last few years. We have to get used to doing more of that stuff.”