In Depth

Henry Schleiff, President and General Manager, Investigation Discovery, Military Channel and HD Theater

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'The one thing that Investigation Discovery shares with TMZ is it's almost a sister network in terms of the passion of its audience. And this is a business of passion. The programming we play is about passion plays. Often with one side or the other out of kilter, for sure.—Henry Schleiff

[Editor's Note: This interview with Henry Schleiff was conducted in November, 2009, a number of weeks before he got the added duties of overseeing the Miliary Channel and HD Theater in an end of year reorg at Discovery.]

We began the interview with me asking Henry about his decision to join Discovery.
--Chuck Ross

Henry Schleiff: I was very, if you will, circumspect and careful about what I wanted to do coming off what I thought was a reasonable success at Court TV and Hallmark, with some kind of narrow reputation of taking a team of people and a network and really taking a network to its next level.

It’s one thing to go to a small network. It’s another thing to go to a small network with a small niche. This is a small network in terms of its current distribution—55 million homes—but an unbelievably wide, hugely embracing genre called storytelling. Great storytelling with a subgenre of crime, justice, mysteries, investigation.

Let’s talk about storytelling. Today, in very simple terms, you have a ton of great scripted product out there on broadcast and cable. Lots of great scripted stuff. You’ve got a ton of unscripted stuff coming under this general name of reality.

What you don’t have is almost idiosyncratic to Investigation Discovery—ID—which I call almost a third variation. And that is semi-scripted reality. That is documentary footage—it’s real footage, it’s fact-based stories. We don’t have actors. We don’t have scripts. We’re taking actual documentary footage and telling unbelievably compelling stories with high stakes, like mysteries.

Give me one other network in this crowded universe of what, 130 or 140 ad-supported networks—that has that as its unique selling proposition. And so that was very attractive to me because I thought, boy here’s something that’s brawny. That’s big.

Obviously having run Court TV I had some experience in the world of crime and justice. So you could go out there and you could find something that was just a naturally appealing, broad genre. But there is no other crime, justice, investigation 24/7 network.

Not to say there’s not a lot of competition. I look around and A&E does a fabulous job for a couple of hours on a specific night in our space. I look around at TruTV—which we called Court TV when I there. Does a great job on a couple of nights for a couple of hours.

But there is no one place 24/7, 365 days. That’s called a brand. That’s called a destination. Whatever cutsie term you want to put on it. But I do think that’s our calling card going forward. I think actually it is very easy—in the privacy of this interview on your website—to say that’s an easy network to actually grow and make successful.

People, as you know, are endlessly fascinated with this genre. I will give you a couple of quick statistics: One, we’re number one in all of cable in length of tune. Viewers come to us and stay with this network longer than any other network, which by the way, is an advertiser’s dream. Because at least you’re saying to the advertiser—at the very least—viewers will see the spot at the commercial break. The reason for that, by the way, is the very act of telling the kind of stories we tell with a beginning, a middle and an end ,in a compelling way.

We are the fastest growing ad-supported cable network in our demographic target, women 25 to 54. And we’ve only been around for two years, Again, out of all cable, we are in the top five networks in C3 ratings.

Let’s go to from the general to the specific. We just finished October. We ranked number two out of all mid-size networks—that’s networks 69 million subs and under. That’s a lot of networks out there. So to be number two as quickly as we have achieved that is unbelievable.

TVWeek: Who is No. 1?

Schleiff: I think it’s Lifetime Movie Network. Which has been around longer and is a terrific network. Roughly the same appeal in longform programming.

October is the 21st consecutive month of year-over-year prime time gains in both households and women 25-54. 21 straight months. Now, I’ve only been here for two months. I’m trying to figure out how to take credit for the prior 19 months! And it’s going to be arguable for me to even take credit on the two I’ve been here for, so work with me on that one.

Then you have the softer stuff, the beta testing, the most recent beta testing. ID is number one out of all emerging networks in importance to the enjoyment of cable in the latest beta study.

I loThumbnail image for schleiff with paula zahn.jpgok at even the shows at the bottom of the page. We just introduced "On the Case With Paula Zahn.” Two weeks ago, huge numbers. We play 48 Hours. We play Dateline. Now we’ve got our own magazine show. Paula’s excellent. She’s a good journalist. She asks the right questions.

What I’m saying is the mix and the breadth of this genre allows us to do a lot of creative and smart things going forward. So as our distribution grows, and we grow with it automatically, our numbers will go up part and parcel with that distribution.

TVWeek: Henry, you mentioned right at the beginning about coming here and what you found here when you got here. You’re a man with some repute and, I would imagine, you considered some other options. What made you decide to hang your shingle up here at Discovery?

Schlieff: Two things. Thing one, aside from anything else, I’ve spent enough time in this industry to know the industry. To know the players. To know what companies are on the move, on the increase. What companies frankly reflect the personality you should look for, which is very simple: A company that’s lively, that’s got people who are intelligent and people who are fun to be around.

That starts at the top. I’ve known David Zaslav for over 20 years: I’ve competed with him, he’s been a friend. We’ve worked in lockstep, we’ve been at loggerheads. Every way you can work in this business

Then you look at Discovery. On the rise. On the increase. Led by a guy with great enthusiasm and great energy.

Then you think, what the heck role can I play in a company like that? And I looked around and I said, boy, there’s a network over there that I think plays to my experience and to my strength. One, it’s small and it’s in a genre that I understand. As I said earlier, if I have any limited experience or skill, it is taking something that is small in making it reasonably bigger and more successful.

But to do that, you’ve got to be surrounded with resources, you’ve got to be surrounded with people who “get you,” that are simpatico to what you want to do. I literally walked into David’s office and I said, you know you’ve got this thing called ID. Investigation Discovery. Did you ever think about expanding the investigation into areas not only in the world of crime and justice but really playing up investigation?

Cut forward to our new tagline Investigate Life. I literally got about three sentences out of my mouth and David said, ‘Well what about you? When can you start?

I came back to my office. What was supposed to be an hour meeting had lasted about 25 minutes. Yvette, then with me for 30 years, said, ‘My gosh, what happened? It didn’t go well?’ I said, ‘I think it went too well. He says he wants me to start like next week.’ That’s typical David. I think he saw the marriage, if you will, between somebody with my experience, and again, the fabulous job, and I must underscore this, that had already been done at ID. The foundation had then been laid in place. It’s really important to know people like a Clark Bunting, a Debbie Meyers, a Kevin Bennett, who really had laid the foundation for this.

I don’t know if I’m a good writer, but I’m a good editor. And by that, I mean it’s great to walk in where the text already exists, thanks to those people, and those behind them. And to take that and say, let’s edit it. Let’s really push up this and minimize that. Let’s go in that direction, or why this? Just ask the questions which somebody with a full-time view can do. Which they realty didn’t have before me. Somebody who is passionate, over the top and focused on this one child. This one baby. I think that’s what I brought to the table. But we’ll build this network on, frankly, a very solid foundation that was in place before I got here.

I really don’t do startups. When I was leaving Hallmark, people said, “Here’s money, do you want to do this?” And, “Here’s money, do you want to do that?” I said, “Give me the money part. But I don’t want to do this and do that because it’s not going to succeed.” I know what succeeds and I know what’s not going to. And I come back to the fact—in the privacy of this interview—that I think the level of difficulty of making this network successful is so low. The barrier is so easy simply because of the breadth of appeal of this programming and the depth of the resources that we have at Discovery Communications and most of all the support that we have from upon high starting with David and the people in the trenches across the board.

TVWeek: We’ve talked about the TV product. What about online? You look at something like TMZ, which is about celebrities, but could be considered related to ID since they focus a lot on celebrities who have run-ins with the law and so forth. And when they break a story such as Michael Jackson’s death, they get millions of hits, but I don’t know if that translates into significant monies on the ad side for them.

Schleiff: When you say the Internet and the web, potential use of that has gone through the so many incarnations in the last several years. And I think the most current one, and quite correctly so, is the concern that we don’t convert dollars into digital pennies. I think certainly that is absolutely true. I’ve always been very cynical about the monetization of the Internet.

Your TMZ example is a great one because it is very relevant to our audience in particular. I think for the moment the internet for us is the ultimate marketing tool. Especially to increasing an audience when you are a digital network, and often in a channel position that is akin to being in the witness protection program which is essentially where we are, with the exception of a couple of markets, such as New York, where we have a position on channel 23.

So to the extent that the Internet—and through it our website and related websites—allows us to extend our reach to an audience that may not in fact know where we are or even what we even exist, it’s a huge marketing opportunity for us.

The one the thing that we share with TMZ is that I think it’s almost a sister network in terms of the passion of its audience. And this is a business of passion. The programming we play is about passion plays. Often with one side or the other out of kilter, for sure.

I will say that our audience is an audience that wants to know more about the facts of a particular incident, a case, a tragedy, a mystery. You only have so much air time and you only have a certain way of telling a story. You use your website to reach out to the audience and say, “Here’s the back story.” “Here’s where they are now.” “Here’s some other facts that you couldn’t have imagined.” That is a great opportunity for us and something we’re exploring now very much. Huge marketing upside for our audience.

TVWeek: Can you talk about any point of view you want to bring to the network?

Schleiff: Stories of our justice system and a system of justice that is not always just. I think that is incredibly compelling. That also would allows us to shine a Klieg light, if you will, on those heroes of the justice system that get overlooked. And maybe there’s public service initiatives that we can do.

We can look at issues in our justice system that are not only important but lend themselves to great storytelling. I truly believe, in that context at this network, like a Court TV at its best, can inform, can entertain and truly on occasion, can inspire. We’re not going to do that consistently. We’re not going to do all three of those with any given show. But from time to time, one, two and maybe even all three.

TVWeek: Is part of your passion for that come from your background as a lawyer?

Schleiff: Yeah, I think some of it is. And some of it is just being around in this business for awhile and realizing the fact that these networks are incredibly powerful tools of communication. It’s that desire to do good by doing well, which might be a little derivative of the belief that once in a while there’s good karma when you tell a story that truly has resonance beyond just ratings.

TVWeek: Outside of Discovery’s partnership with Hasbro for HUB, the kids network, in the U.S. Discovery networks have always been nonfiction. But what would fit better on ID than one of the “CSI:” shows or a crime procedural like it? Your ratings would certainly go up.

Schleiff: Tthere’s certain things that your brand should shout to the viewer and I think what we’re shouting is fact-based, real life, high stakes stories of investigation. That’s not to say that you couldn’t tell some variation of that in a scripted, fiction form.

Again, there are a lot of networks out there that do that exceedingly well. I would rather be known for what we do and do it really, really well. Which is unscripted.

That’s not to say that we can’t look at—down the line—maybe stories based on scripted stories, based on actual factual incidents. But I think for the moment I’ll split the difference with your very good direction. One of the things that we truly want to add to the recipe here is delving a little more into those significant, important, cause-related documentaries.

For example I have just come back from the Hamptons Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival, and you see some documentaries in this area that would make your hair stand in terms of the compelling story behind them. And I think that’s a good place for us. Again, we want to be distinctive in the world of those networks. And I think staying true to this reality fact way of storytelling as apposed to scripted is a great north star for us.#

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

To read our interview with Laura Michalchyshyn, President and General Manager of Planet Green, Discovery Health and FitTV, click here.

To read our interview with Joe Abruzzese, President of Advertising Sales for Doscovery COmmunications, click here

To read our interview 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.