Monday, February 08, 2010

NATPE: David Zaslav, President and CEO Discovery Communications

Zaslav was introduced as the CEO and President of the "strongest platform media company in the world"--and the number one item of interest up for discussion seemed to be the Oprah Winfrey Network. Zaslav talked about that and had some other interesting comments on the state and future of the industry. Besides Oprah, Zaslav was optimistic about 3D TV, promising a 24-7 3D channel to compliment Discovery's 7 all HD channels.  In his keynote he outlined what he believed to be future fundamentals:

1) Quality content is the key to growth 
2) the TV set will remain the center of television consumption in the home. 
3) Social media: Need to acknowledge that "viewers are the experts" and executives needed to be able to follow their leads. He mentioned that social media made "River Monsters" the most successful show in Animal Planet history (a program that had very little marketing) thru more or less social media word-of-mouth. He also compared social media to what MTV used to be...the place where people go to see what people wear, listen to, etc. I thought that was an interesting comparison. TV companies "must acquire assets to play in that space."
4) International distribution is the key to growth. He said that international markets are like cable was 10 years ago, specifically mentioning Russia, Romania, Poland, and India. Companies need to take content and channels outside the US.

Before the Q&A, a promo for OWN ran (featuring the indie music stylines of Los Campesinos!). The network launches in 80 million homes. The right way to launch a network, whether or not you are Oprah.

Zaslav also had some interesting things to say about the importance of branding in TV’s current landscape. His mantra was “Strong brands, strong programming, stay on brand.” He credited Discovery for staying basically on its foundational brand, while others have refashioned themselves, such as A&E. When he initially came to Discovery, one of the things he did was get rid of “biker and tattoo stuff” to return to that brand image.

Another thing separating Discovery from other cable channels is that Discovery owns almost all of its content, which he credited to the desire to be able to air them over all platforms. In terms of defining “quality”, he said it was their business to identify the great storytellers and getting them to “work with us.” Beyond that, quality meant “great storytelling” and “original characters.”

As another branding case, he talked about how the success of Jon & Kate enabled TLC to rebuild itself after losing an audience by diluting its brand with too much A&E or Bravo-type programming. I’m not sure exactly what he meant—but I thought of “What Not to Wear” a show I like, but does seem more Bravo, I suppose. Anyway, the popularity of J&K created a moment when “women in America were finding the channel” and they could take advantage of that.

Back on the 3D tip, Zaslav again expressed his belief in its future by suggesting that 3D gaming might drive the sets into homes. Basically, thru teens who want it for gaming…then others will find they want it for sports, etc. He thinks the creative community will want it as well, especially following the success of Avatar. He also described how Sony planned to provide programming and had interests thru selling sets, as well as content in films and music acts. Discovery itself, he pointed out, had a 20 year library which it could upconvert.

Zaslav seemed smart about online distribution, talking about Mythbusters and how that show had incorporated shortform videos as well as promoting viewer participation. They don’t post shows, but clips. And also encouraged viewers to submit their own videos suggesting “myths to bust.” Apparently the Mythbuster guys are keen on this stuff.

Before taking over Discovery, Zaslav was at NBC Universal for 20 years. Unfortunately, the interviewer was not successful at getting him to dish some dirt on his form employer.

One moment that caused me to shudder was in reference to Discovery’s “Planet Green” channel, which apparently hasn’t caught on. Zaslav said the company is no longer emphasizing it because he felt “there’s been a political/cultural shift”. The company is no embracing a “lighter” approach to the network.

Again, he was tight-lipped about what OWN would feature in terms of Oprah’s role, though he assured viewers would “feel her presence in a meaningful way.”

A recurring theme among the week’s speakers was a notable relief that the NY Times was soon going to require online readers to pay. He warned, however, that entertainment companies had created the expectations for free content by giving it away to start with. With the NYT, Hulu, and Variety all starting to charge, he saw this as a “shift” (excuse?) to charge.

Lastly, he said that Discovery has people watching YouTube and trawling the social networks. They want to know what people think about their shows.

Nice work, if you can find it.

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