In a recent gathering in New York, I had found myself surrounded by people I had grown to admire over the last many years. Some for just the sheer success story they stand for and some for the way they have led charge of businesses they have been responsible for. Some of these names included the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman and Billy Ray Cyrus, and other names were the likes of David M Zaslav, (President and CEO, Discovery Communications). By now, you will have realised that I was at a Discovery event, one of the few companies that I hold in high regard for its vision and futuristic thought process. And you can also figure how every conversation one could have in such a gathering would have been an experience by itself.
But the one person I was “upfronted” with, was the man who is going to shape Discovery’s international presence – Mark Hollinger, President and CEO, Discovery Networks International. A lawyer by profession – I thought it was quite a coincidence that Zaslav too is a lawyer by profession – Hollinger is a 20-year Discovery veteran. He is responsible for the strategic development and daily operations of Discovery’s international division that distributes 23 media brands to over one billion subscribers in more than 180 countries. Being there, I did not think it was as easy as it sounds, but Mark makes it looks simple. For him, it is creating something on a strong foundation and then growing it in various directions but backed by strong strategies and thought process.
There is no doubting that Discovery has been very innovative in the way it views creation of media brands. Take the example of OWN – Oprah Winfrey Network, which is Discovery’s newest Network that launched on January 1, 2011 in the US. OWN replaced Discovery Health. This multi-platform JV between Winfrey and Discovery also has Oprah.com, and I was informed that it has already made quite a place for itself right from launch. The other new from Discovery this year, which I thought was very fascinating, was 3Net – a JV between Discovery, Sony and IMAX, leading to a 3D Network that debuted in February 2011. This is another first of its kind, and I would be very keen to see how this shapes the face of media offering to the new age viewers.
Only last year, Discovery had partnered with Hasbro to launch children’s network The Hub. The proposition took forward Discovery Kids network. One reason I chose to highlight these three of Discovery’s latest initiatives because I think the company’s route of collaboration and partnership in itself presents a forward looking proposition. We have not seen them take that route in India yet, as Discovery is still unleashing its international arsenal of offerings and even as I write this, I hear the channel has applied for licenses to five more channels in India. But for Hollinger, the targets are high. Despite Discovery’s India presence, he said, “We are in a good place in India but I don’t think we have done enough and we can do more. This is one of our key markets and we are keen to invest more in this market.”
India as a content marketplace presents challenges to a player like Discovery that makes significant revenues from the likes of on-demand and pay content in its other key markets. Hollinger observed, “The Indian market is such that you don’t get money for content yet, so you have to monetise the audiences you can aggregate. The Indian revenue team has done very well but distribution and advertising sales will drive investments.”
The one question that I think everyone in India either asks or thinks of asking to a media owner such as Discovery is whether, given the strength of the channel and the Network in India, can one expect the channel to dabble with other genres, may be even the general entertainment genre? After all, Discovery too is known for its ability to tell a story. Tell a story, it will, but not a scripted one. “Scripts are minimal on our channel,” asserted Hollinger, and as I speak to him more, I understand general entertainment is also known as scripted entertainment. He added though, “Indian market is very big on fiction, and we are always looking at aspects like these but our core strength is non-fiction and we want to take that forward in the markets we are focussed on.”
One unique advantage for a company like Discovery is that its content is global, and has a universal appeal. In some cases, a relevant dubbing is enough to make a show as interesting to a viewer in India, as it would be to a viewer in China or United States. However, that has not hindered Discovery’s view on “local”. In fact, local is a word that featured quite a bit in my conversation even with Zaslav. “We are not an expat driven company,” Zaslav had said on the subject, adding, “We have local business leaders and we understand the importance of local languages. Indian has 42 main languages and with our language customisation infrastructure, we are already available in English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.” I should add here, Discovery has now also launched a Bengali feed. Content is something that the channel invests in whole-heartedly, just the visual imagery alone makes a lot of difference to Discovery’s content proposition.
I had to ask this, NGC is a strong competitor in India and now AETN is set to launch and with a powerful group like Network18. What does this mean for Discovery? “It is good that the genre is expanding and these are strong competitors. It would be foolish to say it would not impact us. Over time, that happens when new channels come in. But we feel good about our position in marketplace and we have much more to offer in India. So that is going to be our focus,” Hollinger puts across, speaking like a man who knows his market.
He reminded me that Discovery has a history in India, the company has knowledge of the market, it has local talent and a great foundation. In Discovery’s overall scheme, India features in the top three to five markets and once again that means that Discovery will continue to build on its present strategies in India and make its presence in the market larger. Some of the other countries of focus for Discovery are Brazil and Europe. Giving an example here of how big India is for Discovery, Hollinger also informed that in September 2011, Discovery’s management team that would comprise the top 30 leaders of the company would be meeting in Jaipur. I have been told this was the first time Zaslav would be coming to India – about time, I would say!
The other area where Discovery hopes to focus more in India is the kids segment. Being a father of two myself, I know that the channel has the kind of content that parents in India would want their children to view because it is a form of extended education. Hollinger realises this too and he cited Discovery’s international initiatives like Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, which is premier science competition for middle schoolers, designed with the intention to cultivate the next generation of great thinkers and innovators. He said, “Discovery Education has content tailored for schools and there would be video streaming in schools in US going forward. This is still underdeveloped in India but we are exploring ways of how we can take this to India.”
In fact, this aspect of Discovery’s content offering is in line with its philosophy of satisfying curiosity, which is something that Zaslav was mentioning in our conversation. He said, “Co-viewing is of great significance for a channel like Discovery and we factor this in the kind of content we want on the channel. Discovery Kids is on these lines. Even a TLC is on this line, it is a shared viewing experience. Which is why content has to be translatable, and we feel more connected to those countries, where we have achieved this like in India.”
Being an avid Discovery channels consumer myself, I can tell you that Discovery does have a strong proposition in India. There is the perception that Discovery, Nat Geo, Animal Planet are very similar to a consumer of this content, and perhaps that is challenge Discovery needs to factor in its communication in India but I also believe that given the aggression seen from the company in the last couple of years, we can expect a lot more action as we move forward.
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