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David Zaslav on cutting beards and growing 4K and international

David_Zaslav_1New Discovery Channel boss Rich Ross was lauded early this year for calling time on ‘faux factual’, a category of programming that had grown to include ‘real life’ mermaids, and snakes (attempting to) eat people live on air. The “pivot” back to core programming values actually started before then, David Zaslav tells TBI in Paris.

The move away from highly formatted reality might, he concedes, mean a short term hit in viewing numbers, but that will not see a return to a type of programming that was starting to become critically derided, and also does not travel particularly well.

“A piece of this started to take root at the company strategically before [Rich] got there, and he has accelerated that,” Zaslav says. “We decided about a year and a half ago to get back to our core brand and think about what Discovery is when it is at its best. We’re about characters, adventure and exploration, but some of the content you were seeing – with beards, and cows and pigs running through the kitchen – we’ve decided not to do any more, even if we give up some ratings points.”

In 2015 the company’s content spend will top US$2 billion, an uptick of about US$250 million on 2014. The Discovery CEO, recently ranked the highest remunerated media boss in the world last year with a package worth US$156.1 million, says that the fact Discovery owns all of its content gives it an unassailable advantage in the content world. There is an increasing pipeline of international and local fare coming from the content division now headed by Phil Craig, but the universal nature of much Discovery fare means it can send its US-originated programming around the world,.

“Ninety-five per cent of what put on Science Channel goes anywhere in world; it feels local and is local because science is universal, and we can do that with ninety per cent of Animal Planet and eighty per cent of Discovery.

“If we assume a US$400 million spend on content on Discovery Channel, we can take eighty per cent of that and pepper in some local content and add library programming, so when you put on TV set on at any given time you will see US$500 million-600 million of content.”

Another focus will be ultra-high definition, or 4K. Discovery was at the forefront of the move to HD, with some success, and also 3D, which didn’t work out as consumers rejected in-home 3D TV. Zaslav says that 4K is a priority now.

“Our content looks fantastic in 4K,” he says. “When there was the transition to HD we saw a bump in our market share because our content looked fantastic. We have been quietly driving very hard on the 4K transition, and are starting to see that happen; so when distributors raise their hand and say ‘we want some 4K’, we are the leader and our content looks great. It’s an additional opportunity for us.”

RacingExtinctionZaslav says that having grown through tough economic times, expansion can only accelerate when macro growth returns. “We have grown our international business more than fifteen per cent a year because we have grown market share. In economies that are growing you can have the same audience and get a lot more money for it; in economies that are flat, you’re going to have to earn it.

“We have to take share from others to get that growth and have partly benefitted from the fact that, in this difficult time, a lot of media companies that are not local have retracted in terms of their investment in content, and a lot of local players across Europe, Asia and Latin America have also chosen to invest a little bit less in content. We made the opposite bet: we made a decision to every year invest more.”

The Discovery CEO has a contract tying him to the US-listed company until 2019. By that point he is confident the return on the investments made in straitened economic times will be handsome. “When economies pick up and we emerge with increased market share it will mark another level of growth for Discovery,” he says.