Just nine days after finishing his stint as CEO of Crown Media, the parent of the Hallmark Channel, long-time media maven Henry Schleiff was named president and general manager of ID: Investigation Discovery, the former Discovery Times network. Shortly after the announcement of his new position was made last week, Schleiff engaged Multichannel News senior finance editor Mike Farrell in an often amusing (on Schlieff's part) discussion about what led him to his new network and the possible directions the channel could take. Following is an edited transcript (rim shots excluded).
MCN: Tell me about your new gig?
Henry Schleiff: I'm really, really excited and I am supposed to know something about this industry, forget everything else. I spent a fair amount of time - I had some head's up from Hallmark when they said they didn't want to sell - I kind of did my own little Schleiff survey of the marketplace and having some luxury of being able to pick and choose - I thought I had an OK record that I could capitalize on. I looked around to see where would be the ideal spot, not only ideal for me, but the ideal spot.
I had a very simple formula and I'll tell you what it was: let me find great people that I like to be around, that I respect, that I think are fun, that are lively. That automatically eliminated a lot, as you can imagine, in this universe.
Is there anybody who is quicker, smarter, a better guy than [Discovery Communications CEO David] Zaslav? A guy that has truly transformed Discovery Communications in two and a half years? It looks like the people here are really, really good.
The second of three, let's put people aside for a second. I do better in areas where I think you need a brand. Give me a brand. On a superficial level, the company is the No. 1 non-fiction media company in the word. Add to that, at least from my own passion, with an emphasis on investigation, justice what have you. So I said, "Man, this little ID network is looking pretty good." Then I began to watch it.
The third thing, after people and brand, give me programming that I can get my arms around. This is a network that truly, truly is Court TV on speed. It shines a klieg light on the injustices of the justice system.
And then I say to myself, what do I want to add to that? I have reached a level in my dotage here were I can say I want to do some important stuff. I think we can use not only the financial and other resources of Discovery Communications, but I think that this is a network that is all about investigative journalism. I think this is net that is dedicated to telling the story behind the story. If we can look at aspects of our society, our culture the human condition, if we can take at taking advantage of taking a look at the lost art of investigation journalism.
I could rip the first page today of any major metropolitan paper - thin though they may be, they still have first pages. There may not be a lot of pages behind it, but on the front page they are finding pieces of the [downed] Air France plane, they're still looking into what happened to [actor David] Carradine. This network is made for investigating the stories behind that. What a perfect combination for me. To the extent I can bring a little more of my contacts, my marketing, my own passion and enthusiasm to what I think has been very firmly established and in place by Clark [Bunting, Discovery's head of emerging networks] and the team in place already.
Here's my biggest problem - somebody asked me what was my biggest challenge and I said competition - I'll give you my second challenge: the programming in place is honestly so good, I don't see how I can improve it. What I can possibly do is get more people to sample it.
That's hard, as you know, in a noisy universe, and especially when you're in a digital world where you're essentially existing in the witness protection program. We're channel 2050, with people afraid to go past 100 because otherwise you press the wrong button and you lose your dog.
MCN: So how do you get more people to sample the network? Will the focus be on increasing distribution (ID is in 54 million homes), ratings, both?
HS: All of the above. They are all inexorably intertwined. You have to increase distribution and with distribution comes greater sampling and with sampling comes better ratings and with ratings comes better revenue. They're all together. You can't do one without the other, and by the way, if you don't do one, than the others don't fall into place. That's the hard part and it kind of helps if you have something to sell, something to watch.
I will tell you that before my interest in this company in general, I didn't spend a lot of time watching the programming. People who watched Court TV told me "Hey, did you ever watch ID, it literally is the best of Court TV," and it really is; it's great stuff. The job is to enlist and to get more people to watch it.
MCN: This is a relatively new brand - Discovery Times became ID in 2008. Does that pose an additional challenge for you? You're trying to boost ratings and distribution for a network that doesn't have quite the recognition factor of other Discovery networks.
HS: There are a couple of headlines there. I think to tell anybody anything, other than a direct phone conversation like this is hard. Movie studios are spending 40% of their negative [cost] to go out and tell people the movie is in the movie theater this weekend. The average negative is $60+ million, so you can do $25 million [or] $30 million. So it's expensive and it's hard to tell people you're out there. It's doubly hard when you aren't spending that kind of money a year. The good news or bad news, for a network that was effectively launched in January 2008 when the New York Times said goodbye and they created ID: Investigation Discovery. The network has only been around for less than 2 years. So the good news/bad news is that it is essentially new.
The particularly good news, I think, and maybe this is naïve, is I do think the cream rises to the top. I think the audience is actually pretty smart. I think the audience out there now is increasingly tired of reality television told from the outside, where it's third party voyeuristic television. So whether somebody can dance, somebody can cook, somebody can be a housewife, somebody can have 20 children, at a certain point, I think people themselves can get a little tired. What people will never get tired of is great storytelling. It's as simple as that.
I don't care what means you take to read a good book - you can read it on a Kindle, you could read it on your finger as far as I'm concerned - you are taken into the story when you become part of the first person in the story, not the third person. When you are interested in finding out what you are going to do next.
I think the hallmark - which I can now say with a small H - of this network is that it really tells stories in the first person. You really feel part of the chase, you feel part of the puzzle solving you feel part of the tension to solve the puzzle within a brief period of time. You will see more shows go in that direction.
MCN: So do you see ID shows moving away from the reality bent or getting more into that stuff?
HS: When you say reality I have an immediately visceral reaction to it because the large majority of stuff is done in a way that is really very repetitious. It's not like we are going to reinvent the wheel and I wouldn't presume to say that. I think we're going to shout our expertise, our authority in great story telling, especially in this world of justice and looking into investigating anything. It could be investigating a plane crash, it could be investigating an assassination, it could be investigating what's going on in the research in Area 51, it could be investigating of a death, it could be investigating of a miracle, it could be an investigation of anything.
MCN: When you were at Court TV, you did a pretty aggressive advertising campaign to promote awareness of the channel. Any plans to do the same at ID?
HS: It's always subject to quote resources and I would say that any network I've ever been with and any network executive will tell you, there is never enough. There's never enough money or off-channel promotion or what have you. The one thing that makes Discovery Communications unique in my experience is not only is there an obvious visceral collegial environment here, but you see it on air [through] cross channel promotion for other networks. I see spots for ID on Science Channel, I see them on Discovery, I've seen them across the board and conversely. That's something I never had as a truly independent at Hallmark or even at Court TV. The best place to catch people is when they are watching cable television. That's a huge leg up.
I also think we will shortly announce a $150 billion co-marketing campaign and I will tell you who are partners are. Our partners are every single journalist, every single newspaper and magazine in the country. Because the truth is they're all writing bits and pieces, Vanity Fair is probably the leader in the clubhouse on this, they're all dong pieces on investigative journalism. The New York Times front page every day, let alone the tabloids, the New York Post and what have you, So we have a partner out there called journalism and we're going to work with our partners because they're $150 billion of promotion.
MCN: Any plan to migrate to scripted fare?
HS: I've been here about five minutes I've been impressed with what is on the air I think part of the calling card here is reality, reality. We all know that the bar or the level of creating a successful one hour series is not only the creation of the series but the marketing and attention to it. Everything is up for exploration; everything is up, no pun intended for investigation. I want to sit down , I want the benefit of Clark's [Bunting, Schleiff's boss and president and GM of Discovery Emerging Networks] thinking, I want the benefit of his team that has been so successful. [EVP Discovery Emerging Networks] Debbie Myers [has done] just a fabulous job in some of the series that are on the air now - Shift, Dallas DNA, I'm so excited about this Paula Zahn magazine show [On the Case with Paula Zahn] we have coming up, we'll talk more about it at TCA. So I want the benefit of Debbie's thinking, I want the benefit of Clark's thinking. I'm a good editor. Let me hear their ideas and maybe I can edit them and everything else is up for discussion.
MCN: You've known David Zaslav for awhile
HS: Many years. Mostly unsuccessfully with David. Given the places he has been I would say my record with him is approx 0 and 40. But this is my way of getting back at him.
MCN: So did he contact you when it became known that you were leaving Hallmark? How did that work?
HS: Well, it was my survey. I think David was busy looking at other things. It was obviously fairly confidential that I was going to become available. So I would say that I called David. To his credit, I said, "Listen, I want to come over and maybe spend a couple of minutes." He said, "I'll stop whatever I'm doing Henry, please come over." I said, "It's kind of significant that I'd like to see you," and he said, "Don't say any more, come over this afternoon."
I walked in and I basically talked to him about ID - I think I got the "I" out before I even got to the "D" and David said, "Fantastic idea." [It's a] Great match, [a] perfect match.
MCN: There are a lot of similarities to Court.
HS: But I think its Court 2.0. TruTV has an affiliate obligation to continue to carry the trials, otherwise they lose their affiliation, and we have the luxury of not having to carry those trials. That's a big thing. TruTV is virtually two different networks still, and we struggled with that. Here we have the benefit of literally being one thing 24 hours a day. As an independent there is only some much you can do. The resources, not only the cross-channel promotion, but the fact that for example, regardless of any other budget, we can take on a large and significant project and have a part of it play on Discovery and the multipart play on ID. This is a very young and vibrant organization, Discovery. Now under David, it's willing to throw the dice and try different things. That makes any organization successful. That's part of what I'm looking forward to here.
And I haven't even gotten to the opportunities in the foreign market place. ID has just been launched in Russia, the U.K, Poland and a few other markets. I think it will be a great rollout there.
MCN: Do you plan to move to Silver Spring [Md., Discovery's headquarters] or will you operate from New York?
HS: As much as they'll have me. Our offices will be in New York, I'll be here with a few others. But just as they have successfully run Animal Planet, the way they've run Planet Green and a few others, putting in technology like video conferencing and the other stuff, Washington, Silver Spring, the easiest commute in the world. I happen to love Washington, it's a great city, Silver Spring is 10-15 minutes [away], it's a great group of people, I've met some of them and I'm anxious to meet the rest.
I love the idea of standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in six months and saying with my team that this is an investigation, this is a story that merits you're attention. This is what makes America great. If we can tell stories that inform, entertain, and I believe that with the team we have on occasion inspire, which we will do, I think it's a great story.