Editor’s Note: In conjunction with a CableFAX Daily Five Questions that appears in the December 10, issue, 360 asked new Discovery Channel chief John Ford what he learned at National Geographic Channel, when his imprint will be felt at Discovery, what current Discovery series he likes and which premieres excite him.
You spent the past few years trying to eat Discovery’s lunch across town at National Geographic Channel. What lessons that you learned there will you apply at Discovery?
The most invaluable thing I learned at National Geographic Channel was how to assemble an audience in a distribution world where much of your audience is on digital cable.
You have to work harder and be smarter to get an audience when you don’t have many people coming across you in the analog world. You’re working with marketing, communications, programming, on-air promotion, every facet of the network, to make a noise in a place where it’s hard to be heard. In retrospect, my job here at Discovery, particularly when I was at TLC, was easier to get an audience than it was at National Geographic Channel.
It’s like going away for training and coming back a little leaner and a little thinner. I think we can apply those lessons to Discovery and get a leveraging effect to build an audience. We need to grow the audience while retaining our core values. In the world we live in today, as you well know, it’s competitive out there. The competitive winds blow every single day and night and we have to weather those and figure out how to tack our way forward, and move the good ship Discovery ahead and beat the competition. I feel I’m in better shape to do that than when I left.
When does your imprint on the Channel reach the linear viewer at home?
It’s a gradual thing. Marketing, tweaking of programs, host decisions (who is hosting shows), all that starts happening right away. But in 6-7 months they’ll feel more of it [in the programming].
If I gave the green light to something today, it might four, five, six months, it might be 18 months, before it’s on the air, it depends on the type of show.
And don’t forget, everything we do we carve up into bite sizes for VOD, which is really great for our affiliates and the mobile business.
But, look, we don’t just do on-air, we’re also online. We think of ourselves as a global content company, providing shows for Discovery Channel domestically, but also for Discovery Channels we own all over the world. And we’re also a big content provider to the Web site. That’s a much faster turnaround.
Tell us about your priorities in terms of the linear business vs discovery.com.
This is a big question. Discovery has to be and remain the gold standard in non-fiction. We have to find the best producers, the best talent and have the best craft in making our programs. That heritage of ours is very important. It’s about high quality.
The other aspect of it is that we don’t think quality and ratings are opposites. We think they go hand in hand. That’s the trick. It’s easy to do quality and not reach an audience. Sometimes it’s easy to make a show that’s not that impressive and reach a large audience. The challenge that Discovery always has is to deliver on a high information/high engagement experience that means quality and big audiences at the same time. That’s what I preach daily. That’s what the staff believes already. That’s the standard which we hold ourselves as we commission programs and go about making them.
We have to do that because our diaspora, if you will, is pretty wide. Our programs go all over the world and into multiple media, so they have to stand up out there in many different forms and for different users.
The thing is we must always be doing is a blend of series and specials. There’s no emphasis on one or the other. It’s both, all the time. Discovery has big tent pole specials like Planet Earth. And we will always be in the business of making those into spectacular television. At the same time we need to provide a steady stream of high-impact series, such as Mythbusters, Dirty Jobs, Man vs. Wild, Deadliest Catch. The task for the development and production team is to do both of those dances, the specials dance and the series dance.
What’s your vision for Discovery Channel?
I think we have opportunities that aren’t’ radically different from what you’ve seen on Discovery before, but maybe points of emphasis.
I think Discovery must own the big science arena. We’ve always been a great science channel. We have a great Mars project coming up this year. We want to be the place where viewers can find the coolest science on the planet. Where we can take and illustrate a story, using CGI, for example, to give you visual realization of something you couldn’t get any other way but television. It might be a mission to one of the moons of Jupiter. NASA’s planning this, but it’s years away. Well, if we can show you what it would be like to get there. By the way, if we discover life on another planet it would be just about the biggest news story of the century [laughter]. Pushing science to the edge, but always grounded in fact. Not science fiction, but science faction. We think that will be a sweet spot for us.
We’ll also be a place where you get to find out what’s going on in the world. When we go out to the end of the world and bag a story and bring it back for you, we’re always going to be a place for superior storytelling about the real world. The shows like Man vs Wild is an example of that. It’s a clever way to teach the audience about survival and exotic places but it doesn’t at all feel like you’re being taught. But always there’s an underlying message in there that you have an informational takeaway. That’s the hallmark of Discovery. We’re never just amusement, we’re about amazement. We’re about how to bring the world in all its wondrous glory, and all the things we’re curious about and touch that place in people’s minds and hearts where their curiosity has an insatiable need to be satisfied.
My vision for Discovery is that we continue to be the best curiosity channel, if you will, in the world. Because if people are curious about something, they can interact with our channel, our Web sites and other places where we have our content and get that curiosity satisfied.
What shows already on the slate excite you?
Well, one first called Warrior Quest that’s now called Fight Quest.
There are two guys, one a mixed martial arts guy in the U.S., the other, an Iraq War veteran, a tough guy in his own right. They travel the world and are trained by local martial artists, each separately, with different trainers. Then they fight local experts. It’s sparring fighting, it’s not a death match. At the same time the kicks to the head are real, and the blood is real. You can feel the pain as they try to master in a short amount of time something that takes years to master.
We think it’s a very interesting show. It has a dash of the culture these guys go into and some very good fight sequences that help you understand the power of different martial arts.
We’re also excited about Smash Labs. We have a team that does dangerous experiments that may lead to a better world. They stage car crashes and they’re trying to develop a mix of concrete that could be a better protective wall on highways. When cars slam into it, it will be soft and absorb the impact. All these things involve dangerous experiments, crashes, fires etc. We have a team with a designer, an engineer, a scientist and a guy who’s sort of our MacGiver, an ideas guy. They work together to put these ideas to the test and see if we can actually get something workable out of it. It’s a great concept and we think the series is a great compliment to Mythbusters.
How does it feel to be back at Discovery after a bit of a hiatus?
I was away for 5 years and had never been in the [new] Silver Spring building. So new building, new CEO, a lot of familiar faces, a lot of new faces and a real high energy atmosphere. David Zaslav really sets the tone for the company. He’s like a force of nature. He’s more like a great football coach, and he’s rallying the team, inspiring the team. It’s fun.