Upfront Notebook: Discovery Puts Reality Talent on Display

With more than 60 stars of the shows on its networks on the Avery Fisher Hall stage at the conclusion of its upfront event Tuesday, Discovery made the case that after acquiring Scripps Networks it has become a major force in the TV business.

Discovery CEO David Zaslav, introduced on tape by Oprah Winfrey, the company’s biggest star, called the event a coming out party for the new enterprise.

“We’re a different kind of media company. We don’t have viewers. We have fans,” Zaslav told the audience.

While most other TV companies are caught up in an expensive scripted programming arms race against both traditional competitors and new digital interlopers, Discovery churns out unscripted shows designed to entertain, educate and inspire, he said.

“We pretty much don’t have actors,” Zaslav said. “We have authentic talent.” He called Discovery’s programming “Functional content,” adding that it is brought to life by the “greatest characters in cooking, food, science, animals, home designs, travel and crime.”

That programming is drawing viewers. Zaslav pointed to statistics putting Discovery at No. 3 (behinds NBCUniversal and Disney) in share of total U.S. viewers.

The event was originally supposed to be one of Scripps Networks’ series of upfront presentations. But instead of the half dozen “talent” on hand, Zaslav pumped up the volume, having everyone from the Property Brothers to the Pioneer Woman brought to New York.

In a bit of a surprise, the traditional Scripps Networks ad sales message seemed appropriate for the new bigger company.

Jon Steinlauf, the Scripps exec named to run the combined company’s advertising sales operation, noted that while the increase in scripted programming has made this the era of “peak TV,” it’s “certainly not the era of peak ad viewing.”

Steinlauf noted that while TV remains the most powerful marketing and branding tool, it is hard for marketers to reach their audiences live because of the way the dramas and comedies that aren’t on ad-free services are time shifted by viewers.

The new Discovery offers 8,000 of new TV a year “so there’s fresh content on virtually every channel every night,” he said. “The payoff for you is 97% of your ads are watched live and they’re seen by the most important consumers in all of advertising: upscale adults.”

As he has in the past at Scripps upfronts, Steinlauf noted that viewers embrace commercials on the company’s channels, pointing to research that shows that Scripps networks were No. 1 in ad receptivity followed by Discovery’s channels at No. 2.

The way Scripps matches advertiser message to show content and the willingness to build programs specifically for marketers will be a feature of the new company as well.

The biggest laugh during the presentation came when Discovery Channel head Nancy Daniels introduced a new Science Channel show called The Innovators that will look at historic figures who started industries years ago and people changing those fields today. The audience started chuckling when the face of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared. Many in the audience had seen Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony earlier in the day. Daniels said she’d been following the testimony on her phone, so when the laughter arose, she knew what people were reacting to and ad-libbed that some of the people in the show may have changed our lives “for better or worse.”

Some other programming highlight included:

  • Kate Plus Eight star Kate Gosselin returns to TLC in Kate Plus Date (working title) as the single mom returns to the dating world. 
  • Drew Scott of HGTV’s Property Brothers comes to TLC as he makes wedding plans with fiancée Linda Phan in Drew and Linda Say I Do.
  • TLC has also acquired never-before-seen video from the 1996 wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. The two hour special is titled JFK Jr. & Carolyn, A Camelot Wedding.
  • Investigation Discovery is adding In Pursuit With John Walsh, the longtime host of America’s Most Wanted.
Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.