Discovery Communications’ growth has – until recently – seemed assured. The factual outfit has expanded around the world in 30 years, reaching 220 countries and territories. Over half its $6,265m revenues come from its international networks.

The UK is one of the key hubs in its global empire. Based out of offices in a Chiswick business park – appropriately next to an (artificial) lake and waterfall – the UK operation employs some 1,200 staff.

The office is home to Discovery’s 13 UK channels, as well as its international production arm DNI Productions. Discovery’s UK reach also comprises superindie group, All3Media, which it co-acquired last year with Liberty Global. It’s a major commissioner in the UK too, ordering shows from some 78 UK indies over the past year.

Highlighting Discovery’s UK ambitions, the broadcaster has also been reported as a bidder for C5 and the Premier League rights. It also took a controlling interesting in Eurosport last year.

Back home in the US, however, there hasn’t been so much good news for Discovery. Weak US ratings and falling ad revenue, and the fear that smaller TV networks like Discovery look vulnerable in negotiations with pay-TV providers, have taken their toll on Discovery’s share price – which has fallen more than 30% in the past six months.

As a result, there’s a sense that things are changing at Discovery. Newly installed Discovery Channel president Rich Ross spoke in January about diversifying the broadcaster’s male-centric audience and returning to its roots in documentary, after criticism for shows like Eaten Alive and Megalodon.

The word diversification also crops up frequently in conversation with Susanna Dinnage, the managing director of Discovery Networks UK  & Ireland.

“At heart we are a pay factual business, we always have been. But a lot of the growth has been from diversifying into entertainment and now sport. We have three very strong prongs to our genre offering.”

The Discovery Channel, of course, lies at the heart of its factual offer. The average age of a viewer is early 40s. About 70% are men, the vast majority married with kids. The most insightful stat about ‘Discovery Man’, says Dinnage, is that he is four times more likely than the average person to have had a motorbike when young. He’s now traded this for a family car.

Discovery’s entertainment ambitions have focused on female focused TLC, which launched here in 2013 and have broadened out the broadcaster from its male heartland with UK commissions like Katie Hopkins: My Fat Body alongside US imports such as Say Yes to the Dress and Cake Boss.

Discovery also has plans for Eurosport. The channel was linked with a bid for the Premier League rights, although Dinnage won’t comment on this. She says the strategy is to emulate Discovery’s international model of repackaging global content alongside some local commissions. It is early days, but she acknowledges that “we need to add fantastically locally relevant sports rights” to the Eurosport offering.

On channels like Discovery and TLC, Dinnage says the ‘sweet spot’ is finding shows that men and women can watch together.

Men, she notes, often struggle to take charge of the remote in a family home – so for Discovery Channel to build audience numbers, the emphasis is on commissions that men can happily bring their partners to watch.

“Co-viewing is really, really important,” she says. “If you want scale, you have to be careful about how niche you get.” The plan is to make the channel broader in appeal, aimed more at the family audience.

However, she plays down any sense of radical change, stressing evolution over revolution. She thinks Rich Ross will pull factual back to the Discovery core of “absolutely authentic, great stories and strong characters.” By way of example, she cites upcoming natural history series To Be King, which follows a pride of lions over 16 years.

But, in the UK, Discovery faces challenges from broadcasters like ITV and C4 which have moved into the adventure genre to attract male viewers. Discovery face Bear Grylls, for example, launched Mission Survive on ITV last month. Dinnage admits it is tough holding on to talent in such a competitive market. However, she cites Ed Stafford, who is making his fourth series for Discovery. Audiences, she says, respond to his authenticity. Other commissions include Hugh Dennis’ Churchill and Me.

It’s clear that Discovery isn’t content to stick just to factual pay-TV. With live TV viewing under threat from VoD and streaming, there is a sense that Discovery is positioning itself – through its production operations as well as sport and entertainment ambitions – for the new era of TV. Says Dinnage: “As an organisation, we don’t sit still…We look at every opportunity, we have huge ambitions for the UK.”

CV: Susanna Dinnage
Susanna Dinnage heads up Discovery Networks in the UK and Ireland, managing the region’s porfolio of 13 channels including Discovery Channel, TLC, Quest, ID, Animal Planet and Eurosport. Dinnage joined Discovery in 2009 and was promoted to the role of UK business head in October 2010, responsible for the company’s growth strategy for its largest market outside the US. Before joining Discovery, Dinnage was part of the launch team for Channel 5, Fiver and Five US over a ten year spell. She began her career at MTV Networks, specialising in audience insight.

Tim Dams

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