Discovery’s Ford: Network to Double Production
Looking Beyond Testosterone Television
Even if testosterone TV—shows like “Deadliest Catch” that feature manly men doing dangerous jobs—goes limp, Discovery Channel president John Ford says his network will stay strong.
With “Catch” wannabees proliferating—“Ice Road Truckers,” “Ax Men,” “Black Gold”—Mr. Ford figures the market for the genre could be saturated next year. That would hurt, sure, but he’s making sure his network is developing shows in other important genres.
That means a doubling of production of original shows at the Discovery Channel, Mr. Ford said in an extensive interview with TelevisionWeek Senior Editor Jon Lafayette. For a rundown of Discovery's programming bets, click here.
Mr. Ford’s 2007 arrival at Discovery Channel was a homecoming. He had been a fixture at Discovery Communications, helping to build that company for 14 years, leaving in 2002. In 2003 Mr. Ford jumped to National Geographic Channel, which posted strong growth.
He left National Geographic in 2007, planning to do some independent projects, but was persuaded by new Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav to rejoin the company.
A few months later, he was running the Discovery Channel, replacing Jane Root, who had put “Catch” on the air.
Discovery is the flagship network for a company that has been undergoing radical change since the arrival of Mr. Zaslav early last year.
From a management point of view, Mr. Zaslav has replaced the chiefs at several of Discovery’s networks and given them added responsibilities.
The company is also in the process of changing from a privately held company to a publicly traded one.
Mr. Ford says he still embraces aspects of Discovery’s legacy, but at the same time is enthusiastic about its newfound aggressiveness under Mr. Zaslav.
Part of that aggressiveness was Mr. Ford’s willingness to kill off projects started by his predecessor. That left the network with a depleted programming pipeline and forced it to rely on reruns during a first quarter in which ratings dropped 13%. But as new shows started to kick in, the ratings returned, with the network showing strong 21% growth in May, when it ranked eighth among ad-supported cable networks in total prime-time viewers.
For a deeper look at Discovery’s ratings and revenue, click here.
During this year’s upfront presentation, Mr. Ford showed off the latest crop of programming in development. He also introduced a new promotional campaign for the network using the slogan “The World Is Awesome,” and the tune of a catchy kiddie song.
An edited transcript of TVWeek’s interview with Mr. Ford follows:
TVWeek: Are you sick of that “Boom-de-a-da” song yet?
Mr. Ford: It wears pretty well with me. Sometimes, I’ll get it stuck in my head and I start to hate it after about three hours. It wears pretty well. I have to say, it improved with age. The first time heard it, I thought, "Ptah, sounds like a bunch of Girl Scouts here. That’s not the Discovery Channel." Then it goes on and on, and it kind of grabs you, and people find it very catchy. We are deluged with e-mails from people saying, "How can I get a copy of it?" We’ve made a ringtone out of it that people can download. Up on YouTube you see all kinds of versions of it that are hysterical. People have taken the song and mashed up their own pictures to it. It’s pretty cool. We’re going to do a country version. We’re also going to do a consumer version, with everyday people doing it. We’re going to keep on working it. It’s universally loved. No one’s written in saying, "I can’t stand that song."
TVWeek: Was that in the works when you arrived at Discovery Channel?
Mr. Ford: Yeah, that was in the works before I got here and then again, when I looked at it at first, it was, "Oh I don’t know." And then it just grew on me. I guess some people, when they come in new to a job, they feel like they have to mark everything with their scent, you know mark out their territory, or kill all the things that they didn’t do. I don’t feel like that. I feel that if it’s good I don’t care if I didn’t invent it. It’s good, period. So I try to let things stay on their merits. That one definitely has stood up. It turned out to be a good decision for me basically to do nothing and let it go ahead.
TVWeek: Did you have the same reaction to the programming that was in the pipeline when you got there?
Mr. Ford: That was different.
Mr. Ford: In the sense that I thought there were things that were headed to be off-brand for Discovery, in the sense that they weren’t interesting enough. Or in some cases they were so adrenalized and devoid of information that they weren’t informative enough. So we just canceled some projects that were in development or were about to begin production because I just didn’t think they would succeed. And that’s normal, I think, when you have a regime change. Somebody’s got a different set of sensibilities. Discovery is a malleable enough brand that if you gave it to three different persons, you’re going to have three different versions of Discovery, but there’ll be some common things that come through with it. So where we’re taking Discovery now is adding more variety than you might have found on the schedule a year ago in the new things that were doing. We still have the holdover shows that are very successful, "Dirty Jobs," "Mythbusters," "Deadliest Catch," "Man vs. Wild," etc.
TVWeek: Didn’t pulling the plug on existing projects mean you had to run an awful lot of re-runs of those shows?
Mr. Ford: We have. And then we’ve added some new things that have worked. We had the limited series "Alaska Experiment" that ran right after "Deadliest Catch" and averaged over a 1 in the demo, the adults 25 to 54 demo. It’s the highest-rated new series since "Planet Earth," so that’s kind of nice. We’ve gotten over 9,000 people volunteering to participate in the next "Alaska Experiment."
TVWeek: You’re renewing that?
Mr. Ford: Yes. Same time next year. So we’re going to have an Alaska Week next year because Alaska Week was very successful this year. It helps us set the table for "Deadliest Catch" as well. "Deadliest Catch" is up about 5% over season three in audiences. That franchise is just getting stronger. It averages a 2 in the demo.
TVWeek: Why is "Deadliest Catch" up?
Mr. Ford: It’s better. It’s more exciting. I think as the production team works on it, each year they try to look at what they’re doing and see if they can one-up themselves and make it better. The small things play off in big ways. So for example, this season we added a chase boat—a boat that could go around and find other boats to shoot boat-to-boat shots. Boat-to-boat shots become really valuable in the edit room to help build up the excitement, because you can see the boat sinking and rising with the huge waves. That’s a very dramatic bunch of shots. That’s a small refinement, but each of those refinements that have been made in the last four seasons of the series has helped move it, advance it, yet another step.
TVWeek: It must be hard to do an exterior shot on a boat without another boat.
Mr. Ford: You kind of need a boat. It seems obvious, but in the Bering Sea, a chase boat has to be a big chase boat capable of withstanding all those giant waves.
TVWeek: That’s got to be expensive, since since they’re not out there anyway.
Mr. Ford: They’re not fishing. So all these things work to make it better.
We’ve also been excited about the success in a different place on the Discovery spectrum with when "When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions," which has gotten just amazing critical reviews. And it’s been doing about a 1 in the demo, even up against two NBA Finals games.
One reason why we’re glad the Celtics won last night is we don’t have to face that competition anymore. So the critical success is high, I think it’s a real Emmy Award candidate because of the craftsmanship in the show. And the unique color HD footage from the 1960s, it mostly doesn’t exist and we’ve got it in documentary form. And it’s also really generated huge online traffic for us and then sold enough DVDs in the first few days to knock off "Planet Earth" as our No. 1 selling DVD. Since "Planet Earth" launched, it's been the king seller. Finally "When We Left Earth" came in and knocked it out of the No. 1 spot for weekly sales at Discoverystore.com.
TVWeek: That’s another example of a show that was in the works for a while before you got there.
Mr. Ford: It was in the works for a while, and it had been shot mainly but not entirely when I came in. And I think the big editorial turn we made is related to what we did with the music. The music had been a selection of ‘60s tunes and we were going to license that and have that be, if you will, the score for the show. I put another executive producer on the project, Bill Howard here in the U.S. … We discussed it and he and I both agreed we needed more of an orchestral score. What I wanted was six action movies. I wanted six documentary "Apollo 13" movies. So the device we would create would be we’re not looking back at what happened with nostalgic music; we’re in the moment, we’re in the event, and we don’t know how it's going to turn out. You saw "Apollo 13," the movie. You remember halfway through, you’re thinking, "I hope these guys get home; I don’t want them to die," when your rational brain says, "Well, we know they got home. That’s what happened." But you forget that. What we wanted to create was people forgetting that the astronauts made it back from every mission. And I think we accomplished that. I think the viewers feel that way. And critics have felt that way and that was in large part due to the shift from a look back to making a really action-packed documentary where you’re there in the here and now. And one key to that was a driving, original composition score and jettisoning the idea of a nostalgic movie. The idea is making sure you believe this is happening now.
TVWeek: Any other new shows getting ratings?
Mr. Ford: We also had success with "Verminators," a series from Thom Beers, who does "Deadliest Catch," and has been doing above the prime average this year—about 17%—running on Monday nights after "Dirty Jobs." It hasn’t gotten a lot of ballyhoo or attention, but this is a solid new series for us. It was in the pipeline, but we again made some tweaks in really smoothing out the storyline and highlighting the characters better.
TVWeek: Can any of the shows you have now in development be big hits like “Deadliest Catch” or “Dirty Jobs,” which are getting older?
Mr. Ford: I think "Iditarod" could be up there in the "Catch" realm. I think "Prototype This" could be up in "Mythbusters" realm. And the other ones, we’re just placing bets on series. In some cases we’re making three-packs of shows. We’ll order three hours. It’s useful programming because I can run them vertically on a Monday or Thursday night. I can also find out if the idea has legs. If it works for three hours, chances are it might work for 13 hours. It becomes a back-door pilot for a series. So it will be a typically varied and rich Discovery schedule, a mix of specials, limited series and what we hope will be long-running series.
One of the main strategies is one that, it sounds sort of robotic and like it’s just arithmetic, but it’s really critical and that is making sure that we produce enough new hours to fill our slate every quarter. The rate at which we had been producing would have gotten us, say, 250 to 260 hours a year. We’re going to ramp that up to more than 500. So by the time we get to this year’s fourth quarter we’ll be delivering shows at an annual rate of about 500 hours, or about 125 hours a quarter. That will vary up and down some by quarter, but we need to get there. So we’ve had to staff up our development department, staff up our production oversight group and just get more things into action so that we can deliver on that number of hours. You have to select and execute very well but we think that if we do our job with that many hours, we’re going to be able to propel our ratings pretty rapidly.
TVWeek: What do you mean by execute well?
Mr. Ford: I would say that if you think of Discovery now, it’s energetic, crisp, engaging productions that have a holy s*** moment. … When you think about Discovery, it’s those moments where you say, "That’s incredible—you can’t make this stuff up." Whether it’s a wave crashing over a boat in the Bering Strait and knocking a crewman into a crab pot and nearly killing him, or whether it’s stunning photography that gets you an up-close-and-personal look at a snow leopard or whether it’s a prototype vehicle that parks over another car—we want people to be startled and amazed by what they see and to really live up to our new tagline, "The World Is Just Awesome." And we’re going to go out and find the awesome parts of the world, shoot them, edit them and bring it back to you in a very entertaining package. And that’s what we’re doing with Discovery 24/7.
TVWeek: A lot of your programming is guys doing dangerous jobs. That genre is spreading across the TV landscape. Is this a sturdy genre or is there a possibility that, as with "Trading Spaces," it could get cannibalized and overexposed?
Mr. Ford: We’re the ones that started it with "Deadliest Catch," and that’s still the biggest and the best of the breed. We’ve got a couple of things in development that are like that, but those are a strand and a part of what Discovery does. They aren’t going to be the entire package of what Discovery is because Discovery has to also do the serious science, it has to be people showing ingenuity under pressure in other ways, which might not be physical danger, but there’s a danger that they’ll fail. So it’s a milder form of danger.
So that tough-guy TV is a segment of what we do, but we can’t bet on that segment alone. Discovery has to be a variety brand always. And also as you allude to, nothing lasts forever and there’s a distinct possibility, in the next year or so, that the market will get saturated with that kind of programming and also as you move down the dangerous-job food chain, the jobs get less and less compelling. There’s a reason why crab fishing works so well: Because it is the most dangerous job in the world based on the statistics. Then you go into other areas and the danger goes down and you’re having to work harder to get that action feeling in there. The number of occupations that lend themselves to this, I think it’s going to be limited.
TVWeek: Is Discovery a changed place since you left? It’s got new management, it’s going public, network heads have broader responsibilities. Does it feel like a different place?
Mr. Ford: Yes. It’s funny because I see a lot of faces of people I have known since the early 1990s who are still here. And then there are a ton of fresh faces, so it’s a little bit of the old and the new. And when you think of it, it’s still John Hendricks’ company. And so his idealism still permeates the company. That Discovery is to be a positive force in the world. That is John and that is Discovery Channel in particular. Layered onto that is the aggressive business attitude of David Zaslav. He comes on like an aggressive college football or basketball coach and he’s always talking to the team, encouraging us to work harder and do better and score more points. And that’s the atmosphere here, it’s, "Let’s go. We’ve got a lot of work to do, let’s get it done and let’s get it done well." And yes, you have the authority of the general manager to run your shop. You also have the accountability for your own bottom line and you’d better act that way and that’s just fine with me.
TVWeek: Has having bottom-line responsibilities changed your decisionmaking?
Mr. Ford: For me, I’ve always run networks as though it was my money at stake. Spending is … something you have to do in order to bring in the money. So you want to spend as little as possible and as much as necessary so you can be more profitable. So riding the bottom line is very much the way I’ve operated since I’ve run networks in the early '90s.
This is a very familiar mindset to me. Coming into Discovery today working for David Zaslav is kind of like slipping a hand into a well-fitting glove. That kind of can-do, top-level approach really works for me. I’m very competitive and he’s very competitive and it really works well for me.
And I’ve got a great team. Our unofficial motto is that smarter, faster better is what we need to be. And I’ve got a great team of executives and they are smarter, faster and better than anybody else.
TVWeek: Are you getting stock when Discovery goes public?
Mr. Ford: I don’t know. I haven’t gone there yet.
TVWeek: Who do you look at as competition?
Mr. Ford: We look at everybody because TNT running playoff games on Tuesday night is competition for us because it’s competition for men. The competitive field is very, very large. People who are closest to us in the genre areas: One is History, another in maybe one or two hours a week is truTV. But really our biggest competition for audience is always going to be the major broadcast networks, because they get watched the most. Then TNT, TBS, USA.
Our people are not choosing between this nonfiction channel or that nonfiction channel in kind of a bipolar world. They’re looking at entertainment, sports news, different types of nonfiction. They’ve got a lot of different interests, and a competitive set of about 15 channels that they watch in their usual cycle. We have to respect that and not get caught thinking it’s a bipolar world where it’s us versus this or that other network. It’s us against just about everybody else in television that has a good rating. That way, instead of worrying about the competition, what we worry about is getting what we do right, because that’s the only thing we can control.
TVWeek: How about National Geographic, how do you see them?
Mr. Ford: In no special way.
TVWeek: Do you take a peek at what they’re doing?
Mr. Ford: Every now and then I’m still interested in my old buddies over there. I want them to succeed, just not that much.