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Upfronts: Discovery Communications Pulls Back From Sensationalist Fare

Discovery Communications is veering away from some of its tabloid tendencies in favor of a programming slate that embraces authenticity and education over the live stunts and troubled reality stars the company has embraced in the past.

“We are about adventure and people finding their best life and living it,” said David Zaslav, chief executive of the company, during a presentation to journalists Tuesday morning.

The themes are evident nearly across the board at Discovery’s various networks. Under new president Rich Ross, the company’s flagship Discovery Channel is relying less on live stunts like daredevil Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walks high above the earth and placing more emphasis on natural history specials that take viewers on quests for treasure and behind the scenes of an undercover operation to protect endangered species. At TLC, long a place for outrageous content on the order of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” inspiration and inclusion are among the themes being promoted. Animal Planet, which in 2014 trotted out series about survivalists and bounty hunters, in 2015 is burnishing programs about conservation, restoration and animal adventure.

The back-to-its-roots approach – Discovery was founded by John Hendricks as a media company that could help viewers satisfy their curiosity about the world and how it works – comes as the company has faced ratings dips and challenges in winning advertising. Both Zaslav and Joe Abruzzese, Discovery’s president of advertising sales, described an “upfront” market that could continue to be crimped as advertisers place more emphasis on reaching consumers through digital video and mobile devices.

Advertising “in general is definitely better than it was in the fourth quarter,” said Zaslav. “I would not say it’s robust.”

Little wonder that Discovery has in recent months placed more emphasis on its international operations, which Zaslav said are bigger than its U.S. assets. Discovery expects robust growth from overseas holdings over the next five years, the executive said, and intends to devise “great content and drive it around the world.” On Monday, the company said its All3Media joint venture had purchased Sam Mendes’ Neal Street Productions, based in the U.K., and taken a controlling interest in Eurosport France, part of the Eurosport International sports-entertainment company that has rights to broadcast everything from Spanish cycling to Major League Soccer.

At home, meanwhile, Discovery is making shifts, For years, the company would trumpet the breadth of its networks, which also include Destination America and Science Channel, among others, at a glitzy event that usually drew Oprah Winfrey, co-owner with Discovery of Oprah Winfrey Network, and a multitude of the people at the center of the company’s programs. In 2015, the company has opted to meet with ad buyers individually, in an effort to spark more serious discussion with more senior-level executives.

“Our business is changing,” said Abruzzese, and advertisers want media outlets to bring opportunities to them “in the most direct manner.”

One of the best examples of the company’s evolving direction is a Discovery Channel special called “Racing Extinction” that will tackle everything from global sustainability to climate change. The documentary will show a team of activists and artists undertaking an undercover operation to infiltrate black markets where animal products are sold and use high-tech tactics to show how rising carbon emissions are killing off entire species. Discovery intends to make the program available in 220 countries over the course of 24 hours.

The network will also launch “Harley Davidson,” a series that tells the story of the iconic motorcycle and the company built around it. An adventure series, “Treasure Quest,” will show a team of explorers setting out on a two-month journey to find priceless Incan treasure.

TLC’s transformation is less subtle. The network continues to focus on oddball characters and fish-out-of-water protagonists, but have wrapped them in the trappings of family and aspiration. One new series, “Long Lost Family,” will reunite family, friends and loved ones. Another, “Hardly Royal,” will center on a Maryland blue-collar worker who finds he is the heir to the throne of the Isle of Mann. “Married By Mom and Dad” is a social-experiment series about people who let their parents serve as personal matchmakers.

TLC programs, should be the equivalent of “a big warm hug,” said Marjorie Kaplan, the Discovery group president who oversees TLC. “We throw our arms open to everyone, without judgement.”

Not all the eyebrow-raisers are gone. Discovery Channel will continue to air “Naked And Afraid,” the survivalist show featuring people sans wardrobe. And at the Investigation Discovery cable network, examinations of lurid crimes and love gone wrong remain the main staple.

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