It was a long-awaited, much anticipated event for 2020. No, not only the COVID-19 vaccine, but the announcement of Discovery+. With its subsequent launch last Monday, the new streaming service is a potential game-changer for our industry, but it’s not without hurdles to clear.
For starters, Discovery+ features an incredibly stuffed inventory of 55,000 programs from Discovery Channel, TLC, HGTV, ID, Animal Planet, Food Network and others. In addition, they’re picking up programming from BBC Nature and rival A+E Networks – History, Lifetime and A&E. There were lots of other goodies revealed during their December launch event – big-name talent, prominent advertisers, and a distribution deal with Verizon. But the launch leaned heavily on the commitment to 1,000 originals in the first year, with everything designed to attract subscribers to pay US$4.99 or $6.99 per month.
From an industry perspective, a new player in the game is always welcome, as it means more potential for producers to create content. From the company’s perspective, the ultimate reward would be the successful migration of its large cable audience to a paid streaming service.
The heavy hitters are already established –- Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, Hulu – and newcomers HBO Max and Peacock have mega-sized owners. In addition, don’t forget CuriosityStream, led by Discovery founder John Hendricks, a smaller documentary service that is trying to be the tortoise to the big guns’ hare. The big question, of course: In that lineup of available services, will viewers make room for Discovery+? Observers, including the New York Times, are already weighing in.
With its established brands, popular shows, on-air talent and premiere programming, it would seem that Discovery+ has a head start. But like almost everything else in our ever-changing media universe, there’s potential risk implicit in the drive for potential rewards. These risks are no surprise to savvy executives, but as we’ve seen with what CNBC called the “bumpy start” for HBO Max and the failure of Quibi, even the best and brightest can stumble.
So, what could possibly go wrong? Let’s look at the marketplace. So far, it is safe to say that factual TV is not necessarily premium TV. The broadcast and cable networks load their schedules with reality fare not only because it has audience appeal, but it is often cheaper than scripted dramas and sitcoms. As a former programmer, I can attest to the fact that the return on investment is usually greater for almost any factual program or docuseries compared to something like The Crown. There are examples, of course, of reality shows that succeed in the streaming world – from unscripted originals such as Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and Love Is Blind to linear hits such as The Great British Baking Show. Depending on your point of view, they either offer hope or prove the rule.
From a consumer standpoint, the traditional appeal of a pay service is its ability to stray into uncharted, unusual or edgier territory along with a wide array of shows you can’t find anywhere else. We’re talking big-ticket historical dramas (The Great), fantasy (Game of Thrones), bracing comedy (Dave Chappelle, Amy Schumer), controversial documentaries (Tiger King), and programs with more open sex and violence – while still offering a smorgasbord of options to scroll through. On Hulu, for instance, you can choose a blunt portrayal of adolescent sex with the series Normal People… or stray into its back catalog to watch I Love Lucy, produced in the days when network standards demanded that Ricky and Lucy sleep in separate beds. Even the broadly popular The Queen’s Gambit journeys into alcohol and drug abuse, sex, and profanity. And don’t even mention super-frank shows like Orange Is the New Black on Netflix, which at the same time, also offers gentler dramas like Sweet Magnolias and Virgin River.
As for the need for star power, take this test: Who is Anya Taylor-Joy? Hint: She’s the hottest star on TV, but if you ask 10 people who she is, odds are that nine or more wouldn’t recognize the name without Googling. The answer is at the end of this paragraph, to make the case that stars don’t always attract viewers. There are dozens of streaming shows with minimal star appeal — popular titles such as Stranger Things, Bloodline, and Luke Cage. Search the top programs on any pay service, and there will be a mix of programming with no bankable stars along with the biggest names from the movie and TV universe – Adam Sandler, Robert DeNiro, Jennifer Aniston, Will Smith, David Letterman, Kaley Cuoco. But where is Anya Taylor-Joy on that list? She’s the chess-playing champ on The Queen’s Gambit, the hugely popular 2020 series on Netflix with no marketable stars, just a high-quality, well-written mini-series.
The lesson? To succeed, maybe you need to play both sides of the game, which Discovery+ seems to be doing, bringing in big names like Kevin Hart, David Attenborough and others, while also relying on their existing programming. At the launch announcement of Discovery+, popular comedian Sebastian Maniscalco poked fun at both himself and Discovery CEO David Zaslav: “You don’t want to see either of us on Naked and Afraid!” I’m sure it provoked chuckles in front of computer screens everywhere. But it got me thinking: If you can see Naked and Afraid on the linear Discovery Channel, what will it take to watch it on Discovery+? Or will they ultimately need to create a less wholesome version — perhaps Celebrity Naked and Afraid -– to make a difference?
I’m joking, of course, but you get the idea. Will there be enough compelling reasons to watch even more Chopped and House Hunters and shows like them? Reality TV is already ubiquitous on cable and broadcast. To stand out on a pay service, according to conventional wisdom, you’ve got to make that splash with big-budget series, first-run movies such as Wonder Woman 1984, high-value reruns like The Office, or – most important – content you can’t find anywhere else.
Ah, you ask, but what about Disney+? This may be the real model to follow. With a wholesome appeal and world-class brand, Disney+ has rescued its parent company in the pandemic by lining up 86 million subscribers with incredible sub-brands such as Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel and National Geographic. They’re building up their slate of original programming with The Mandalorian and other on-brand series. Like Disney+, Discovery+ not only has a similar name, but it seems also to be banking on broader-based, family-friendly or safe harbor fare.
With so many streamers and a cable universe that hasn’t yet completely imploded, it’s a challenge equivalent to the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo – climbing the media mountain with a strong grip, careful planning, and a knowledge of the dangers lurking below.
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.