It’s very liberating to be able to function knowing that if you try something and fail that’s OK
We spoke to Marjorie in November in her office in New York. She’s been with Discovery since 1997. After David Zaslav came in to run the company in 2007, Kaplan was asked to move from overseeing Discovery Kids to transforming Animal Planel. We began the interview by asking her what her marching orders were when she arrived at Animal Planet
Marjorie Kaplan: I was brought in by David in 2007 to run Animal Planet to revolutionize the channel. The goal from the beginning was, how do we dramatically increase the presence of the channel, how do we magnify the things that people say they like about the channel but don’t necessarily demonstrate themselves in the viewing of the channel?
How do we really ignite this business? I’m not sure that we realized at the beginning quite how revolutionary it was going to be.
[We had] the freedom to come in and go, “Okay what do we really know here? And how big do we really want to blow this up? It was exhilarating.” My job was to come in and take a look at everything, pull all the pieces apart and say what was the big opportunity here? What did we miss?
The goal has been to transform Animal Planet from what had really become a niche animal channel to a big entertainment player. Which is a work in progress but we’ve really made some significant strides. And pride. Because we looked at the landscape and we said, “People don’t watch television ‘cause they have pets. People watch television because they like television.”
And there are lots of people who have pets and we certainly want them to watch us and we want to be competitive with the other television options that are out there. And so it really caused us to rethink everything from logo to brand positioning to target audience to producers, and were going with some pretty significantly different shows.
TVWeek: Could you talk more about what Animal Planet was all about and your vision and how it’s been evolving over the past year or two?
Kaplan: It was a beloved brand. More often probably watched by grandparents and grandchildren than by adults 25-54. The sort of primary filter for the content was content about animals. And while that’s not the wrong filter, it’s not the same as saying competitive television content. I think that was kind of the starting point. Also, it was a channel that everybody claimed they watched but not everybody did.
So the new vision is to be gutsier. The idea is to be even more entertaining. Not to take the edges off things because we’re trying to be for grandparents and grandchildren. Also to make sure we’re really relevant in the television landscape. So lots of shows with people in them.
The tragedy of our “Whale Wars” is you almost never see whales. There are almost no animals in Whale Wars. It’s certainly about animals. But really, the big driver and the viewership driver is, “Who are these people? What is it that drives them? What are the relationships between them?” So something like Whale Wars is a good example of [the new Animal Planet.
Something like “River Monsters,” which is in some way a traditional natural history, but in another way very different. Because really, it’s a who-done-it. A big part of the strength of that show is that it’s using the staples of entertainment. It’s got cool music, it’s got great ins and outs into the breaks. It’s a murder mystery, basically, that we’re solving at the same time we’re doing really cool scary fish and really brave fishermen.
TVWeek: Let’s say I’m a producer named Thom Beers and I have this show, and I’ve named it tentatively “Deadliest Catch.” If I had just come up with this show idea, how do you figure out internally if it’s a better fit on Animal Planet or on the Discovery Channel?
Kaplan: Oh, that's a tricky question! I guess here’s what I would say. I would want Thom Beers, because I’m a competitive person, to bring me “Deadliest Catch” [first]. Then I would want to be able to make that decision. I’d want to be able to look at it and say, "Great drama. Great story. Great life and death." The close places where humans and animals come into contact with each other.
How do we make that our show as opposed to a Discovery Channel show? It’s not that it’s wrong for Discovery. But it’s that, in our new world, it has the potential to be right for us. I think part of our job internally is to both strive for that kind of content, to share where appropriate and to be clear to drive branding. It’s the little things that actually really do matter from a brand perspective.
Discovery Channel is always going to be a little more knowledge-based. Not that we’re not about knowledge. We want people to come away with things but we’re going to start more from the gut and they’ve got to make sure they deliver on that knowledge piece. So, they’re little things but they make a difference when you aggregate them into the branding.
TVWeek: How is your vision of Animal Planet on the Internet fit with what you’re doing on the television screen?
Kaplan: I think the website expands the experience in some cases and I think in some cases it’s totally additive.
In the pet category, for example, and the domestic animal area there’s so much affinity. You want to send in the picture of your dog, you want to be able to tell everybody yours is the cutest, you want information, how to rear a puppy, how to paper train, all that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of content that is related to the television but also a lot of stuff that’s not [on-air]. I’m thinking about getting a dog, what’s the right breed for me, breed selectors. There’s a lot that you can add that’s really useful information that’s [part and parcel] of our brand but not necessarily directly linked to our shows.
Now the flipside of that is you can also use that to connect with your potential audience in a lot of ways. So that we can have a section in our website called The Spot, which is all about affinity, where we say to people, “Do you want to get your pet on television?” “Do you want to be on TV?” Come in through this door. And that helps us connect from our marketing perspective. So we’re leveraging the affinity around pets. That’s one side of it.
The other side is the kind of clips that you can do on the web. Our video views are so through the roof because we now have these incredible clips from Untamed and Uncut.
[To see a really harrowing--and incredible clip--from Animal Planet's Untamed and Uncut, click here.]
Or we have something like Lost Tapes which is really a very big brand stretch for us and we are very innovative. It’s almost like independent films and people are crazy for this stuff. Literally crazy for this stuff. We put a clip out and people are like, “Oh, my god. Did you see
that girl? She just got swallowed by that monster!” And you’re like, “They think this is true?!” That’s kind of a whole other world. I think the web gives you ways to reach and connect with your audience. It’s certainly not a revenue driver in a big way at the moment. But in some ways I think it’s price of entry and it’s a more robust way to connect.
TVWeek: Could you talk a little more about your connection with David Zaslav and how you got to Animal Planet?
Kaplan: Sure. Here’s my favorite David story. David offered me my job in a minute and a half in a taxi ride. I was in a taxi on the phone on my way in from the airport. Not to say there weren’t a lot of conversations leading up to it, but literally he called me and said, “I just want to know one thing. Do you have the energy for this?” And I thought, wait a second, do I have the energy. I have so much energy. I had no idea. I just had no idea. So, my experience with David is he is a very big thinker and a very decisive leader. And a really competitive guy.
I actually met David, interestingly, a long time ago when I was running the kids business here. We were in conversations with NBC. If you might remember we had a kids block on NBC and I actually met David at one meeting through NBC. When he came to Discovery, he did kind of a listening tour at Discovery before he actually took the job. Or before he was actually in the job. And I met him through that. And I got to know him. I had big ideas for the channel and I guess he thought that sounded good.
Patricia Kollappallil, Animal Planet’s Vice President, Communications: With the rebrand, we have not only revolutionized our content but our business. We brought in the advertisers, we brought in a younger audience, so it is the buzz from things like “Whale Wars” and “River Monsters” and ratings that have happened with things like “Monsters Inside Me,” where we’re thinking about bacteria of animals, or parasites of animals. It’s driven by the content but we’re touching all areas of the business. And this is how we think about the brand.
Kaplan: It’s true. The job was to transform the business, starting by transforming the branding. And the branded side. Then to transform the content and also engage the advertising community, [having them understand] us as being a very different destination. We brought new advertisers to Animal Planet that were never on Animal Planet before. We brought in a whole other kind of audience. The average age of our audience has dropped by six years in nine months.
We’ve had seven consecutive months of year-over-year growth among persons 18 to 49. Just statistic after statistic of real transformative change.
Kollappallil: And we will be spoofed on South Park.
TVWeek: Do you know what they’re going to do?
Kaplan: Yes, they are spoofing “Whale Wars” and they are calling it “Whale Whores.”
Isn’t that great? There’s nothing like being able to tell your seventeen year old son that he should really watch your channel.
TVWeek: Anything else about working with David Zaslav?
Kaplan. Yes. I think another one of David’s strengths is that he celebrates success but he also celebrates big, important, dramatic failures. That’s one of my experiences with him when you’re looking to transform something and your job is to take big swings. Sometimes those big swings really don’t work.
It’s very liberating to be able to function in that kind of context. And we have had shows that we were very, very proud of that really didn’t work. And not only has David acknowledged that and sent me notes saying, “Don’t worry. This is what we’re in this for,” but he has gotten on the phone and called executive producers who had been working on these shows and cheered them on. That’s a liberating style. And I think very important in our transformation.#
To read our introduction to this special report, "Cable TV Programmer of the Decade," click here.
To read our interview with Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav, click here.
To read our interview with Bruce Campbell, President, Digital Media and Corporate Development for Discovery, click here.
To read our interview with Bill Goodwyn, Discovery’s President, Domestic Distribution and Enterprises, click here.
To read our interview with Henry Schleiff, President and General Manager, Investigation Discovery, Military Channel and HD Theater, click here.
To read our interview with Laura Michalchyshyn, President and General Manager, Planet Green, Discovery Health and FitTV, click here.
To read our interview with Joe Abruzzese, President, Advertising Sales for Discovery Communications, click here
To read our interview with Eileen O’Neill, President and General Manager, TLC, click here
To read our interview with Clark Bunting, President and General Manager of the Discovery Channel, click here
To read our interview with Carole Tomko, President and General Manager of Discovery Studios, click here.
To read our interview with Mark Hollinger, President and CEO, Discovery Networks International, click here.