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Wonder Women 2020: Nancy Daniels

Survivor. Big Brother. The Amazing Race. 90-Day Fiancé. Dr. Pimple Popper. I Am Jazz. Sister Wives. Serengheti. Gold Rush. Naked and Afraid. These shows and many, many more have come to life under the purview of Nancy Daniels, chief brand officer of Discovery & Factual.

Nancy Daniels

Nancy Daniels

“She’s the person you want to be in a foxhole with,” Discovery president and CEO David Zaslav said. “She is fearless and formidable: You can’t knock her down. She’s been able to do something very few people have been able to do — build a top network for women with TLC and then turn around and build a top cable network for men.”

Said Daniels: “Moving from TLC to Discovery is a mind shift, but it was something familiar to me — the programming is familiar to me and the audience is familiar to me. I look at it as good storytelling and good content.”

While Daniels’s title of chief brand officer is a bit of a misnomer because she’s in fact in charge of three cable networks — Discovery Channel, Science Channel and Animal Planet — she’s very much aware of how significant a strong brand is in the era of streaming TV.

Knows Brands’ Value

“She starts with what the brand is when it’s at its best,” Zaslav said. “She’s very big on doing the deep audience dive: What do viewers like about the network right now, what do they love on the network, what do they love on TV in general and what would they like more of? Then she starts thinking about how to program and schedule that.”

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Even before that deep dive, Daniels knew well what she had with the gilded Discovery brand: “Any time someone says something like, ‘oh, it’s so hard to find shows and get a hit,’ or ‘we work in cable and it’s so hard’ — I say ‘we work on one of the most beloved and respected media brands there is; it is so meaningful to people.’ Do you know how hard that is to build? … Having something that already is so meaningful to people, we are so lucky.”

By leaning into the strength of that brand, Daniels has maintained Discovery’s standing as the top basic-cable network in primetime, excluding sports, among men 25-54. It also boasts the top unscripted cable series among men 25-54 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and has more top-10 unscripted cable series than any other network in both 2018 and 2019 among both men 25-54 and men 18-49.

In her first full year at Science Channel, it tied its highest-rated year ever among people 25-54 in prime and total day. It also had its highest-rated year ever among women 25-54 in prime and total day, growing 7% and 11% from last year, respectively.

That performance is something she replicated at TLC. In Daniels’s first year overseeing the network, it jumped from seventh to sixth among women 25-54 and from ninth to sixth among women 18-49 among all basic cable networks. In her last two years at the helm, it improved 12% and 14%, respectively.

Daniels accomplished that growth with programs such as the popular 90-Day Fiancé franchise and exciting live events, such as Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live, which made headlines when explorers uncovered a 2,500-year-old mummy live on television.

“I’m really proud of the turnaround at TLC,” Daniels said. “I was there for four and a half years, which is a long time for a network president, and we had a couple of really low years. And then we turned it around and right now, TLC is killing it.”

Like most successful leaders, Daniels attributes much of the success to her team: “It takes a long time to find the right people you click with.”

Some of the people Daniels clicked with she met early on and still remains close to, such as Allison Grodner, founder of Fly on the Wall Productions, which still produces Big Brother for CBS and many other unscripted series. Daniels worked with Grodner early in her career, and when CBS came looking for a network executive, Grodner was quick to recommend Daniels, who was hired as VP of alternative series development.

“Nancy knew story, she was creative and she understood developing a show,” said Grodner, who still works on projects such as TLC’s This Is Life Live with Daniels . “I also knew she would be able to bridge that gap. She’s thoughtful and smart in her responses to things. She absolutely has the temperament to navigate the corporate world.”

Aced the Interview

When Jennifer Davidson and Tara Sandler of Pie Town Productions met Daniels in 1994, Sandler knew she wanted to hire her on the spot. After the interview, Sandler leaned out of her office window and called Daniels right back in to say “you’re hired!”

“Nancy did the cutest thing — she jumped up in the air and clicked her heels,” she said. “She started out as a second producer and ended up running a show or two. She was a baby genius.”

Pie Town was significant for Daniels in more ways than one: She met her husband, Mark, a director of photography, there, and the couple has two children: Sam, 17, and Leo, 12.

Looking ahead, Daniels conceded: “It’s a super-challenging time in media in general, let alone cable, as we’re trying to figure out the future. There’s an entire generation of people who didn’t interact with Discovery Channel as we did growing up. How do we make Discovery relevant to another generation so that will live far beyond [being] a cable channel?

“The future is barrelling at you — you can’t run from it,” she said. “You have to be ready for it and do everything you can to get these networks ready for it.”

Career Highlights: Building TLC into a top-10 cable network for women. In 2019, TLC was one of the few basic cable networks to show growth and in 2019, its popular franchise 90-Day Fiancé led the network to its best July performance ever among persons 25-54 and all key female demographics.

Quotable: “The future is barrelling at you. You can’t run from it; you have to be ready for it and do everything you can to get these networks ready for it.”