In Depth

Laura Michalchyshyn, President and General Manager, Planet Green, Discovery Health, and FitTV

laura-michalchyshyn.jpgGreen is a fad. Sustainability is forever.

Planet Green is about passionate people doing forward thinking things. It’s about strong narratives, great stories and great storytelling.

TVWeek interviewed Laura Michalchyshyn at her office in New York in November--Chuck Ross

TVWeek: You did an excellent job at the Sundance Channel. I really enjoy the Elvis Mitchell show there. How long have you’ve been here now?

Laura Michalchyshyn: Seven months. We’ve had a great couple of months in terms of transitioning this network into the next phase of Planet Green.

I’d like to say it is an evolution, not a revolution. It’s about re-conceiving the kind of programming we’re putting on the air. Literally I have now green lit seven new series.

In the first quarter we’re introducing ten new series. That includes acquisitions, some global acquisitions of series never seen in the US, two original series that are my green lights, and then some series that are coming off of some of our brethren. We’re going to run “Whale Wars” season two. Some of the big tent pole blue chip programs.

We’ve created a new descriptor saying Planet Green is about passionate people doing forward thinking things. It’s about strong narratives, great stories and great storytelling. It is non-fiction at its best in terms of providing a guideline and a guidepost for the future. It’s about how we’re living in this sustainable way. And rather than just being green and environmental, it really is about an innovative viewpoint. Its people and our effect on the planet, and how we interact with the planet.

TVWeek: That sounds like a smart, workable approach. I’ve always thought Planet Green has had a particular challenge on the programming side. How does environmentalism—Planet Green, if you will—translate into programming on a channel 24/7? Plus what you have online.

Michalchyshyn: Yes, we also have and What I’ve done is said is that all the DIY, all the how-to, all the informational programming, is going to move to Treehugger and That’s become the Wikipedia of green. If you’re interested in solar panels, or you’re curious about putting a pond pool in your backyard, or you’re wondering about the next electric car, you’re going to Google or Bing, and you’re going to go to our websites and they’re going to be the quintessential go-to sites for all green environmental sustainable tech, design, you name it. Information. But on air, as a TV network, we have to be provocative—great stories and great characters.

So, again, we’ve shifted the focus and said a lot of the how-to will move to the web, and the on air is about fantastic non-fiction. Dramatic storytelling in a non-fiction realm.

TVWeek: Can you give us an example?

beekmanboys.jpgMichalchyshyn: The series we’ve just done, it’s the Beekman Farm, we’re calling it the “Fabulous Beekman Boys.” It’s a fish out of water story. Two city folks, slight city slicker, cosmopolitan gay men, buy a farm upstate—don’t have a clue what they’re doing—spend their weekends trying to raise goats and chickens and turkeys and cows and piglets. And they have no clue. And it’s hilarious. So what we’re doing is following their adventure.

Another series which we’re launching in first quarter is “Operation Wild.” It takes a look at the environmental protection agency in Florida, if you will. Florida wildlife cops. Again, it’s taking a look at these people. Why did they choose to be environmental police versus regular city police? Well, they chose it because they have this passion for animal life, the environment. So we’re following them around. Again, the focus for us isn’t about saving the world and the planet, that’s important, but that isn’t our focus. Our focus is the people on the planet.

TVWeek: That leads me to asking you the same question I asked Marjorie Kaplan who runs Animal Planet. If I’m Thom Beers and I come to you with an idea for a show I’m calling “Deadliest Catch,” how would you decide if it’s a show for you or for one of your sister networks?

Michalchyshyn: That’s a good question. Each of us in charge of these networks here creates a set of filters and a brand. We have a brand filter. And what’s interesting is our brand filter is about passionate people doing forward thinking things. “Deadliest Catch,” to me, is perfect where it is because the Discovery Channel is about satisfying curiosity in its every demand. Planet Green is about characters who are maybe doing things a little out of the ordinary and extraordinary. So “Deadliest Catch” totally belongs where it is because it’s the good, the bad and the ugly about discovering.

What’s great is we actually spend a lot of time together and its good for people to know that as a company, we’re in constant communication. And we will talk about ideas that have come in, shows that have come in, producers that have come in. and many times people will come to us and we’ll go, you know what? Not right for our brand, but you should go talk to Marjorie at Animal Planet or you should go talk to Discovery or you go should talk this person or that person. That happens all the time and that’s the beauty of this company. Each of us knows the other brands well enough to be able to at least direct people in that direction. But we are very clearly articulated about the differences between the nets.

TVWeek: How about how you differentiate Planet Green from what other networks may be doing regarding environmentaled programming. For example, at your former channel, Sundance, you created some of that programming

Michalchyshyn: That’s right. Well, first of all, their block is a three-hour block and it’s quite a focused block. Ours is a 24/7 channel. Interestingly, by the way, David [Zaslav] was on the board at Sundance and it was under his tutelage—and Robert Redford’s 30 years of environmentalism—that we launched that block, and now it’s clear that David saw the bigger opportunity . I think the differentiation here is that we’re saying that this is about a way of living and being, and it is about characters who are living, who are in it.

Very different right now for us is that we want to show—whether it is architecture, design, fashion, food, travel, technology, innovation or gadgets—that this is a way of being. So it’s less of the how-to.

I’m going to be developing shows where I have people who are in fashion. It might talk about the principles of fashion. Questions like. “Do we have to make the clothes in third world countries and developing countries and pay children two dollars a day or can we do it in a way that’s more sustainable?” “Can we look at it as more micro finance?” “Do we pay people proper wages?” “Do we do it in places where people actually are not being taken advantage of?” That kind of thing. Ours is a way of thinking.

I like to say sustainability. Green is a fad, sustainability is forever. That’s kind of what we’re saying. We’re moving into that sustainable space. And the differentiation point is these fantastic characters. They may come from all walks of life, and I need to be able to tell local stories. People in our era are not going to necessarily be famous. Celebs, if you will. We’re going to make people TV stars. But they’re going to be people that we may find in everyday life. So that’s been a change for us. That’s been a slight shift from when we launched in June of ‘08. That we’re telling stories, whether you’re in San Francisco, or Boston, or Chicago, or New York, or you’re in Iowa somewhere, or you’re in Portland, Oregon. We’re going to tell more local stories.

TVWeek: Clearly you’re energized. Was the fact Zaslav is here one of the reasons you came here?

Michalchyshyn: What’s interesting is that I looked at the performance of the company since David started which is beginning of ’07. When you look at the stock price, when you look at performance, when you look at our revs. when you look at the growth of the business, it’s kind of unbelievable.

Look at the partnerships that he’s founded, whether it’s the Hasbro deal, Oprah Winfrey, launching Planet Green, reinvigorating so many channels, bringing Henry [Schleiff] on.

Many people have said to me, “Wow, why did you go to Discovery? Because I had a great job and I loved my life at Sundance Channel. The answer is two reasons. One, the legacy of Discovery. The solidity. The amazing reputation for performance of the company.

The other reason would be David. I met David at the end of ‘04 when Sundance was looking for a number two, EVP programming content marketing, and on air. I was in Toronto, at Atlantis. It’s very interesting because it was mostly phone calls.

Iit was through being a staffer at Sundance Channel and an executive and having to present to the board, quarterly meetings three or four times a year—that I came to know David better. It’s his incredibly sharp way of thinking about the business

Things are never static. If you know David Zaslav, there is no moment of rest. He is up early, he goes to bed late. And he is always on. I find that inspiring. He’s got a great sense of humor, he’s interested and curious. He is approachable.

He really brought me in because Eileen [O’Neill] was promoted to go turn TLC around, and what a job she’s done. What he said to me was I believe in this channel. It is a channel of the future. It is a channel about the way people are living, now and forward. Take it Lauren, and make it your brand. So that’s what we’ve worked on this last seven months is really taking Planet Green to the next level.

After Discovery announced a reorg in December, I contacted Michalchyshyn again about her increased responsibilities:

TVWeek: So can you talk a little specifically about your new duties with the reorg?

Michalchyshyn: I’m still running Planet Green. And I’ve inherited Discovery Health. And, as we all know, Discovery Health,will become OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, in January, 2011. So my role really is to be the champion of a smooth transition from Health to OWN. And I think what’s great about this opportunity, for me, is a) I have a very strong relationship with [OWN CEO] Christina Norman. I’ve known her since I came the US [from Toronto, Canada]. She was someone I met early on when I arrived to NY. And we have already had conversations on how I can help facilitate a smooth transition.

I have a great team at Health who have been doing a stellar job, but now that they know the transfer date we actually have a very clear path of goals and strategy to get to that January 1, ‘11 date.

TVWeek: Any your other new responsibilities?

Michalchyshyn: I am now running FitTV. Which is really interesting because Fit is a channel that, right now as we all know it, is kind of about wellness, exercise, getting in shape. It’s a channel that, in the future, is an opportunity for Discovery. And that’s one of the key messages from David—that this is a channel that he sees as having great growth potential. So we’re gonna spend the next while, probably six to 12 months, kind of figuring out, strategizing. It’s so new, I can’t even tell you what it will be, but there are some great opportunities and ideas for what Fit could be in the future.

TVWeek: Clearly one of your strengths, that you exhibited when you were with the Sundance Channel, is that you're a strong story teller. And that's not what FitTV is really about today. So do you think that might be part of what you’ll bring to it?

Michalchyshyn: I’d be thrilled and honored if I can do that with the network. Absolutely. I think what’s interesting is what this company is doing is putting together channels that are, let’s call them the emerging portfolio. And what David has entrusted in me, is, I tend to be—and I love the label--I’m the change maker. So I think he’s giving me an opportunity to make some change happen. Which is exciting.#

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 Marjorie Kaplan, President and General Manager, Animal Planet Media Enterprises, click here.

To read our interview with Joe Abruzzese, President of Discovery Advertising Sales, click here

To read our interveiw with Eileen O'Neill, President and General Manager of 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,