The Player: Discovery Networks
The Date: April 2, 2008
The Venue: Frederick P. Rose Hall at Time Warner Center
Key Execs: David M. Zaslav, president-CEO, Discovery Communications; Joseph Abruzzese, president-advertising sales; John Ford, president-general manager, Discovery Channel; Eileen O'Neil, president-general manager, TLC; Marjorie Kaplan, president-general manager, Animal Planet; Patrick Younge, president-general manager, Travel Channel; Christina Norman, CEO, Oprah Winfrey Network
The Food: In keeping with Discovery's earth-and-nature tone, attendees had a choice of healthy fare, including scallop burgers, vegetarian meatloaf served in the shape of a cupcake and baby zucchini with lavender. But no worries, upfront hoppers, decadence was also on the menu, in the form of such tasty treats as miniature beef Wellington and a station devoted to frosted-before-your-eyes gourmet cupcakes that you could take home with you in a little bakery box.
The Drinks: A full bar included everything from Jack Daniels to Crown Royal.
The Ratings Game: Discovery Channel is by far the kingpin of this 13-cable-channel operation, winning an average of 1.175 million live-plus-same-day viewers during 2008 primetime, according to Nielsen. Animal Planet captured an average of 551,000, while TLC notched 876,000.
Last Year's Take: Discovery Channel saw ad revenue increase 9% in 2008, rising to about $557.1 million from $510.9 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Animal Planet saw ad sales decline 3.9% to about $214.6 million from about $223.4 million. TLC saw ad sales rocket 10.4% to about $299.9 million from about $271.7 million.
The Digital Play: Many of Discovery's channels have distinctly targeted web accompaniments. Planet Green has TreeHugger, where environmentalists can dig deeper into earth-saving ideas; Animal Planet has Petfinder; and parent company Discovery Communications is giving a bright spotlight to HowStuffWorks, which, when you think about it, is what a good portion of the programming the company's cable channels explain.
The Pitch: It's no secret that broadcast networks are facing big challenges thanks to the one-two punch of a broad range of emerging digital-media venues and a sagging economy. If you're a company whose main thrust is cable, this is a good year to throw a few sharp elbows. And so the executives at Discovery Communications did, with Mr. Abruzzese pointing out that a marketer could buy time on four of his networks during prime time for the same amount spent on a single broadcast network. The Discovery folks made the usual cable-positive arguments: that broadcast networks are showing ratings declines or that some are scaling back original scripted fare, such as NBC, which is introducing a new talk show from Jay Leno in prime time. Mr. Abruzzese made a point of saying that Discovery Networks' offerings could compete with the new Peacock chat show.
Others outside the company have also started to tout Discovery's view. In a recent research note, Bernstein analyst Michael Nathanson noted that Discovery's new Oprah Winfrey Network -- also known as OWN -- could be a growth driver in years to come, and that Discovery has a high exposure to stable affiliate fees and a focus on "evergreen" content that has cost advantages. Even so, ad declines and the economy pose challenges to the company.
Executives at the upfront promised bold programming. Animal Planet, in the midst of an identity shift, is putting more focus on drama, while still retaining a focus on pets. "Pit Bulls and Parolees," a new show, will show Tia Torres offering both abandoned dogs and forsaken ex-cons a shot at redemption.
While most of the company's "emerging" networks got only a few minutes to tell their tale, some time was reserved for chatter about OWN, with CEO Christina Norman (a former top executive at MTV) outlining a plan to focus on programming "for people who are living life with purpose."
One program, "Excellent Adventure," will feature a celebrity making a cross-country trip with a best friend, with the clip introducing the show featuring comediennes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Another program, titled "The Peter Walsh Project," will be one of many that feature life-improvement experts made popular through appearances on Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show. Mr. Walsh helps people sift through the clutter of their homes to improve their lifestyle. OWN is slated to make its debut in 2010, executives said.