Discovery Communications and its 14 niche-ified U.S. channels are a good illustration of how much TV viewing has changed.
The conglom’s channels turn out hundreds of hours of original programming every year, most of it unscripted. Beyond the flagship Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet brands, the Discovery outlets have tended to blur together. That’s why the group has been on such a rebranding kick, to give channels distinct identities that immediately telegraph what viewers should expect when they tune in.
The latest rebrand is the transformation of Discovery Fit & Health into Discovery Life, unveiled formally Wednesday morning at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills. It will take time for that moniker to mean anything more to viewers than the previous one, but Henry Schleiff, the Discovery group prexy overseeing the makeover, promises it will become clear in time with a mix of medical-themed shows ranging from mystery ailments to heart-tugging stories from the maternity ward.
Schleiff is a veteran cable programmer who has been with Discovery for the past five years. He signed on to oversee the makeover of Investigation Discovery, which has blossomed as it honed its true-crime and documentary niche. Schleiff’s success is reflected in the fact that he’s taken on oversight of additional channels (Destination America, American Heroes Channel and now Discovery Life) virtually every year he’s been at the company.
“The magic word is ‘curation,’ ” Schleiff said. “With the volume of cable and digital (programming) now there’s no such thing as appointment television. It’s important to have real clarity in your brand.”
That extends beyond the channel moniker to programming blocks as Investigation Discovery brands its primetime blocks with umbrella titles like “Deadly Devotion,” “Dark Temptation” and “Nightmare Next Door.”
“We change the name every hour or so but we’re consistent. We know what our viewer likes and we give it to them,” he says.
In the case of Investigation Discovery, that viewer is a femme on the older side of the 25-54 demo, and she wants mystery and suspense programming. ID may hit the jackpot with a new scripted show “Heartbreakers” that mixes 1980s and ’90s nostalgia with true-crime reenactment stories starring vintage heartthrobs a la Kevin Sorbo and Antonio Sabato Jr., as well as 1980s TV stars such as Nicole Eggert and Tracey Gold.
The range of Discovery’s efforts to target distinct slices of the TV viewing audience was on display in the eclectic mix of personalities that took the stage during the group’s presentation. The “Heartthrobs” session was lively, with Sorbo reminding jaded journos that he can’t be called a has-been if he’s got eight movies in the can and dozens under his belt since his last TV series, the syndicated “Andromeda” ended.
The self-described hillbillies of Destination America’s “Hillbilly Blood” kept the crowd engaged with discussion of the resilience that it takes to make it a place where chain stores are few and far between and locals expect to take care of their own. For all its challenges, Appalachia is “a part of the Earth that scrapes up against heaven,” said Spencer ‘Two Dogs’ Bolchak, in a genuinely poetic observation.
Discovery showed off “Naked and Afraid,” its buzzy show that sends participants into a exotic location without any provisions, not even clothes. No, it’s not about titillation, the participants insisted, but about testing your mettle as a human being, as past participant Dani Julien said on the panel. “You can’t just say I’m going to run around in the woods with no clothes on for 21 days without preparing,” she observed.
Exec producer Jay Renfroe noted that it is an elaborate job to keep up with the pixelation needs of the show. And while participants are stripped naked and humbled by the challenge, egos are not entirely suppressed by the experience.
“A lot of guys do request larger blur spots,” he noted.
Among other news, Discovery announced the promotion of Rick Holzman as exec VP and general manager of Animal Planet. He’s a 10-year Discovery vet who previously worked for the flagship channel as well as Science. His promotion follows the shuffle of group prexy responsibilities that saw Animal Planet chief Marjorie Kaplan expand her turf to include TLC.
(Pictured: Kevin Sorbo and Nicole Eggert)