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Interview: Marjorie Kaplan, Discovery Networks International

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27 July 2016

The president of content at Discovery Networks International tells Tim Dams about the ‘creator led’ shows she’s looking for

Within a few minutes of walking into Marjorie Kaplan’s office, she is showing a promo in which lots of couples strip off and jump into bed. It’s an unexpected start to any interview, let alone at broadcaster like Discovery with its roots as a science and natural history specialist.

Yet for Kaplan, the show – dating series Undressed – sends a strong signal about the kinds of programmes she is looking to commission in her role as president of content at Discovery Networks International. “It breaks the mould a little bit about what people think Discovery is,” she says.

Undressed is produced by RDF-owned Fizz for Discovery’s TLC, and is based on an Italian format that first played on one of Discovery’s Italian channels. Local versions are also being produced in countries including the Netherlands, Poland and Australia.

Part of Kaplan’s brief at DNI is to dig out promising Discovery shows from across the 220 countries in which it operates, and to take them around the world. “Finding local sparks and blowing on them,” is how she characterizes the role.

The other part is to commission big, standout shows that can play all over the world on DNI’s channels, including Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet and ID: Investigation Discovery. But big doesn’t necessarily mean expensive, she says. “Big expensive is fine, but money doesn’t always mean things are big ideas. I want to find exciting, bold and brave content.”

Kaplan stresses that DNI channels already have a ‘fantastic pipeline’ of 1,800 hours of shows from the US, so she is not looking for content to fill specific slots or for particular genres. “We are the stretch,” says, adding that she is looking for “creator led content – surprising, interesting ideas for our audience.”

Expanding on the theme, she says that competition is fiercer than ever given the growth of catch up services and digital platforms. “We are not just competing with what is on television tonight. We are competing with everything that has ever been on television.” That means the creative bar has to be set higher by broadcasters like Discovery. “More than ever, it is so important for content to move from being liked to being loved. We are only interested in content that we believe can be loved.”

She thinks Undressed has the potential to be loved. A fixed rig show that attempts to find out if two people can fall in love after undressing each other, she describes it as a ‘noisy’ social experiment.

She also picks out Everest Rescue, a Betty production about high altitude helicopter rescues on the world’s talent mountain. Everest Rescue has been commissioned to play to global audiences and, says Kaplan, is more than just a typical ‘dangerous jobs’ show. In a pitch tape for series, a pilot is asked what it is like to save a life and he wells up in tears. “That was the moment I knew we can definitely do this show,” says Kaplan, explaining that she wanted characters with emotional range rather simply hard-driving, stoic types who just get on with the job.

Kaplan says she doesn’t just want to commission shows that look and sound like successes that Discovery has had in the past; she stresses the need for range, subtlety and the unexpected. The first rescue by one of the pilots in the show – which took place at an altitude that is incredibly dangerous for a helicopter to fly at – was for a rich climber who didn’t want to walk down the mountain. “That is part of what it means now to be at Everest, and I want those stories,” says Kaplan.

As yet, however, it’s unclear exactly how much Kaplan intends to commission at DNI.  She started in October, and Undressed and Everest Rescue are the only two shows to be announced. She points out that she has spent time visiting Discovery’s international teams, meeting producers and putting ideas into development. “We cut way back this year, because we wanted to take a breath and say, ‘What should we really do?’”

Among some producers, there’s a feeling that Discovery has scaled back commissioning as it focuses on its Eurosport platform, particularly since acquiring the European rights to the Olympic Games between 2018-2024 for $1.44bn. “That is not true,” says Kaplan. “There is no question that getting the Olympics was a big swing and a big financial commitment. But that has not had an impact on the money we intend to spend on content internationally.”

She also says that DNI is open to business to all indies, even though Discovery now owns a range of UK production companies following its acquisition of the All3Media stable as well as Raw and Betty.

“We expect a lot to come from them and to come from the rest of the creative community. We don’t have a policy of saying that we only work with companies that we own or partially own.” Discovery, she adds, works with over 70 indies in the UK. “We want to be the people that people want to work for and with,” she concludes. “It has to be about being the best creative partners.”

CV
Based in London, Marjorie Kaplan has been president of content for Discovery Networks since October 2015.

Kaplan has spent nearly 20 years at Discovery, where she was most recently group president for TLC, Animal Planet and Velocity.

She made her name running Animal Planet from 2007, repositioning the network as a more adult focused entertainment brand.
Kaplan joined Discovery  in 1997 as senior vice president for children’s programming and products.

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