Never mind the bundle. For Discovery Communications, it’s the platform, baby.
Turning a decade-old cable mantra on its ear — Cox Communications’s “It’s the Bundle, Baby” — Discovery is the latest programmer to test the digital content waters. By going all-in with the August nationwide launch of TV everywhere app Discovery Go and, more recently, striking deals to weave together short-form and long-form content from millennial- targeted websites and subscription video-on-demand, the programmer is looking to attract a younger, hipper and more lucrative audience.
Overseas, Discovery, which generates more than 50% of its revenue outside the U.S., is aggressively leveraging sports rights obtained via its Eurosport networks for a direct-to-consumer offering aimed at attracting and keeping younger viewers.
Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav said Discovery’s digital strategy was actually hatched four years ago as viewership trends were changing toward multiple screens, devices and digital services like Netflix, Amazon and YouTube.
“We looked at the landscape,” Zaslav said in an interview last week, “and we asked: If people could watch anything they wanted on any device, how strong would we be?”
At the time, Discovery was at one of its strongest points. Its international business was generating about $1 billion in revenue and the company was the leading programmer in nonfiction. “If long-term, we’re going to be a robust and compelling content company to all age groups, we’re going to have to be on every platform,” Zaslav said. “Our brands were strong, but if people could watch everything, we would have some challenges.”
The solution was to embark on a three-stage attack: strengthening its networks by creating “super fans” for channels like Velocity, OWN and ID; reaching avid sports fans in Europe with Eurosport; and getting in position to offer content direct to consumers for free.
The last part of that three-pronged effort revolves around making new and existing Discovery content available on a wider variety of platforms, including TV Everywhere apps, online and digital video and, in Europe, a full direct-to-consumer offering.
Leading the charge is Discovery chief commercial officer Paul Guyardo, who joined Discovery about a year ago after a 10-year stint as chief revenue officer at DirecTV. A savvy marketer who led the team that helped grow DirecTV’s subscriber base from 15 million to more than 20 million, Guyardo is the point man in Discovery’s ambitious new plan, not only in charge of U.S. digital operations, but also taking over its Eurosports. com digital initiative in Europe.
Guyardo knows the direct-to-consumer business — he worked for Barry Diller’s HSN for several years and was SVP and chief marketing officer at discount retailer Kmart before joining DirecTV — and is assembling a top team to attack the digital space, including executive vice president and general manager of digital media Karen Leever; SVP and general manager of OTT and digital syndication Michael Bishara; newly promoted SVP of emerging platforms and partnerships Rebecca Howard; and managing director of Eurosport Digital Ralph Rivera, who helped launch the U.K.’s most popular direct-to-consumer product, the BBC iPlayer.
The push to digital is partly motivated by the dwindling traditional TV market, and comes after years of resistance to online video — which Discovery partly attributes to past carriage deals. Discovery has weathered the same ad-sales and distribution pressures as other programmers. In the past 12 months, domestic ad sales reversed course from a 6% increase in Q3 2015 to a 3% decline in Q3 2016. Internationally, ad sales declines have improved from a 14% decrease in Q3 2015 to a 6% decrease in Q3 2016.
Like many of its peers, the uncertainty has affected Discovery’s stock, which has declined about 9% in the past 12 months. And while ratings have softened over the past few quarters, Discovery points out that it still attracts about 8% of total viewership but just 4% of affiliate dollars.
“Every programmer is challenged with an ecosystem which is slowly declining as a function of cord-cutting, cord-shaving and cord-nevers,” Guyardo told Multichannel News. “Like all media companies, we are doing what we can to fortify that traditional business. But by the same token, we have to aggressively pursue alternative business to reflect the fact that viewership trends are changing.”
That includes investing about $100 million for a 35% stake in short-form digital content producer Group Nine, the home of pop-culture site Thrillist, news site Now This and animal advocacy site The Dodo. The idea is that, along with Discovery’s own science-based site, Seeker, and its digital production studio, Sourcefed Studios, the programmer will house its millennial-focused digital content under a single umbrella and a single salesforce, allowing the company to sell the full package to advertisers.
While Discovery is obviously optimistic, not everyone is convinced it can make a big dent in the digital landscape.
Asked if the efforts were too little, too late, Pivotal Research Group senior research analyst Brian Wieser said, “it’s just little.”
“They made an investment in a niche business,” Wieser said, referring to Group Nine. “It’s not going to allow them to call themselves a digital company. The bigger issue is: Are they developing content that survives and thrives in a world where more and more content is being consumed through dedicated apps or otherwise through streaming services?”
Guyardo doesn’t claim the shift will be easy, but he said he believes Discovery’s advantage is two-fold: It owns most of its content, and that content tends to attract what he calls “passionate super-fans.”
That allows the programmer “to go narrow and deep,” Guyardo said. “I have the luxury in this job that we own so much of our IP it allows us to be platform-agnostic.”
The platform increasingly matters: programmers are finding that digital distribution brings in additional revenue streams and can lure a whole new universe of viewers.
Discovery started dipping heavily into the TV Everywhere market last year, and its Discovery Go app is available in about 72% of the country, with full coverage expected in the next few years. Guyardo said TV Everywhere has helped draw in younger Discovery viewers. He said about 60% of TLC viewers and 50% of Discovery Channel watchers on the Discovery Go app are aged 18- 34. That compares with just 11% of that age demographic watching on linear channels.
And the streamed content isn’t any different from what is being aired on traditional pay TV.
“It’s taught us that a lot of the content that our network presidents and network teams are producing is quite relevant to a younger audience,” Guyardo said. “We just needed to put get it on a different platform to get that younger audience to consume it.”
The Group Nine investment builds on that concept by aggregating younger viewers under one corporate roof. And it gives Discovery a major instant digital presence — its brands deliver about 3.5 billion views per month — and strong credibility with advertisers.
“That puts us right up there with the likes of Buzzfeed,” Guyardo said. “Scale is a real calling card with advertisers; it’s what gets you in the door.”
Those younger viewers are also ripe for targeted ads and other forms of advanced advertising, all which have higher revenue potential.
Discovery also is taking a different tack with SVOD, launching two new OTT subscription services on Amazon’s Streaming Partners Program — True Crime Files by Investigation Discovery and Destination Unknown.
Amazon Prime members will get access to Discovery library for a small incremental monthly fee. At launch, True Crime Files will include library content from ID shows like I (Almost) Got Away With It, True Crime With Aphrodite Jones, Most Evil and Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry. Destination Unknown focuses on the paranormal and will include content from linear networks like Destination America, and series available at launch will include: A Haunting, Ghost Asylum and Mountain Monsters.
Zaslav called the Amazon offering an experiment, much like the company’s attempt to create a “sports Netflix” offering in Europe through its Eurosport Player, an OTT service that launched about a year ago and has roughly 250,000 customers paying about $7 per month for live streaming of tennis, skiing, soccer, cycling and other sports.
Zaslav said the European sports market is much like the U.S. was about 15 years ago, when ESPN first began to assert its dominance.
“In the U.S., sports took all the money, and was able to generate significant incremental value on other platforms,” Zaslav said. “Europe feels fresh. There is only one pan-European sports channel, and that’s Eurosport.”
Zaslav said Eurosport is in the second stage of a direct-to-consumer strategy, building the infrastructure and the teams behind the Eurosport Player efforts. “We have real ambition that could be a game-changer for our company.”
But the Eurosport Player isn’t totally without problems.
RBC Capital analyst Steven Cahall noted in a recent report that while the product has been successful, its customer reviews have been poor — he cited Google Play data that showed just as many customers gave the service a 1-star rating as a 5-star nod — something that its recent deal with MLB BAMTech can hopefully address. BAMTech, which counts Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, HBO Now, the PGA Tour and WWE Network as clients, will provide the backbone for the Eurosport Player.
“If they can get it right, Eurosport’s vast portfolio of rights should drive growth from just 250,000 subs today to millions over time,” Cahall said.
Discovery Networks International CEO JB Perrette wouldn’t predict how much the Eurosport OTT Player could grow, but he said the potential, given the low pay TV penetration in the market — about 12% in Germany and 57% in the U.K. — is huge.
“We have 50-plus markets with over 700 million people,” Perrette said. “If we can get 1%, that’s 7 million people. “The numbers get big pretty quickly. And we feel like we’ve just started to rev the engine.”
Discovery first bought a 20% stake in Eurosport in 2012 and purchased the rest in a series of deals that ended in 2015. The sports channel committed $1.4 billion for European rights to the 2018 to 2024 Olympic Games and securing 45 Bundesliga soccer games in Germany beginning in 2017. It has also taken its nonexclusive Grand Slam Tennis rights exclusive and done the same for premier soccer rights in Norway.
‘REALLY MAKING PROGRESS’
Coupled with the opportunity to more aggressively market the product, Perrette said he sees ample runway for the direct-consumer service. “As we get the talent, as we get the product to be more world-class, we can actually start leaning into it and start driving the subscription funnel in a much more aggressive way.”
Discovery also is looking at different ways to exploit sports rights to create its “sports Netflix,” including offering season passes for particular sports, Zaslav said.
“Each of these initiatives is informing us of how do we approach a stronger relationship with consumers and how do we get more of our IP directly to consumers and which IP do we need more of to be successful,” the CEO said. “We’re excited because we think we’re really making progress. I think we’re really in the game of having Discovery be the media company that should be bigger and stronger in the next generation.”
SIDEBAR: Getting Game
Discovery’s Eurosport has invested heavily in sports rights over the past few years. Here are some of the properties it has purchased:
• Q115: Africa Cup of Nations (soccer), Australian Open (tennis), FISU Winter Universiade, World Championships (Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, superbike, biathlon), FIS World Cups (winter sports), European Season Start (cycling).
• Q215: Spring Classics (cycling), FIA WTCC (touring car), World Championships (snooker), Giro d’Italia (cycling), UEFA Women’s Champions League (soccer), French Open (tennis), FIFA Women’s World Cup (soccer), Le Mans 24 Hours (motorsports), ATP & WTA tournaments (tennis).
• Q315: FISU Summer Universiade Gwangju 2015, Tour de France (cycling), UEFA European U-19 Championships (soccer), Bundesliga (soccer), World Championships (swimming, athletics), Vuelta a Espana (cycling), U.S. Open (tennis), Australian Football League.
• Q415: International China Championships (snooker), WTA & ATP Tournaments (tennis),Eurocup (basketball), FIS World Cups (winter sports), Season end (motorsports), World Championships (weightlifting), World Cup (biathlon), U.K. Championship (snooker), Four Hills Tournament (ski jumping).
SOURCE : RBC Capital