Kaplan Meets Two-Fisted Challenge of Discovery

When Discovery Communications shuffled the leadership of its cable networks in February, Marjorie Kaplan emerged with a strengthened hand. The longtime Discovery executive gained oversight of TLC, the company’s second-highest-rated network, adding it to her portfolio alongside Animal Planet, the thirdhighest rated among the group. Eileen O’Neill retained flagship Discovery Channel but gave up control of TLC, taking in its stead the lower-rated Science Channel, previously Kaplan’s, along with Velocity. Investigation Discovery president Henry Schleiff added Discovery Fit & Health to his suite of brands.

Now as group president, TLC and Animal Planet, Kaplan is tasked with growing two networks—one new to her, the other a channel she has run for seven years—that are already among the most watched on cable. Kaplan, who will appear April 24 at B&C’s Women of New York event, spoke with programming and digital media editor Daniel Holloway about the challenges ahead.

What was the goal of the reorganization of the networks?

It kind of was a twofold goal under the overall goal of setting up the company for continued growth and creative success—and [Discovery president and CEO David Zaslav] said this. One was to reward the top creative leaders in the company. And the other was to create a more balanced allocation of resources across the U.S. portfolio. From a balance standpoint, having Discovery and TLC under one person’s responsibility is just a huge amount of weight on the scale. And I think the opportunity to connect Discovery with Science and Velocity was huge for those three channels. From my perspective, to get a chance to take on TLC, to broaden my portfolio, to take on two fully distributed, big entertainment brands, was a great creative challenge to me.

At the time of the shift, there were no immediate changes made at the GM level. Were those changes considered?

I can’t really speak to that on all the different businesses. I can just tell you that I had known [TLC general manager Nancy Daniels] before I was put in this job, and I think she’s really, really talented, so I’m delighted to be her partner.

At the upfront April 3 you rolled out new TLC programming across the family, wedding and relationship categories. Is the goal right now to find programming that fits into each of those three silos?

I think it’s helpful to our audience to understand that we intend to deliver content in those areas, but those are not the only genres that we’ll deliver in. For example, there’s a whole other area we call “heartwarming transformations,” and we really own that genre in the fashion space with What Not to Wear. We absolutely will have more shows to bring to the air before the end of the year in that genre.

Is there a ceiling on how much growth TLC can experience if it continues to target women so closely—and will we see male-oriented content in the future?

We’re not going to target our content to men, but we don’t have any intention of being male-repellent. While our content is female-skewing, it’s not exclusively female. We do have a lot of family viewing, including— and my husband will be embarrassed— my husband, who watches with me. There’s plenty of stuff on our air that we think boyfriends and husbands can find fun to watch with the women in their lives.

Which are your husband’s favorite shows?

Oh, dare I say? He’ll watch Say Yes to the Dress with me on Friday nights. And recently he started watching The Little Couple.

Do you still see room for growth at Animal Planet?

Oh, yes. I think people maybe underestimated the opportunities for Animal Planet, but not anymore. Last year Animal Planet was a top 10 network for three weeks. I don’t think people know that. To me what that says is there is absolutely no reason why Animal Planet cannot be a top 10 network, period.

How do you expect your success running these networks to be measured?

Performance. I think it should also be measured by the content. When I’m done, what are the shows going to be that people talk about that we did together on these businesses? I think on Animal Planet, our track record is powerful. On TLC, that’s a brand that already has some of that in its history, and I hope that with me there in partnership with Nancy and the team, there will be more.