Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

The future for Discovery Networks: can ‘Bob the Builder’ fix television in a new era?

We find out how Discovery is planning to use children’s shows, sport and food to battle streaming services and social media

Discovery has acquired the regional rights for 'Bob the Builder'. Courtesy of Discovery
Discovery has acquired the regional rights for 'Bob the Builder'. Courtesy of Discovery

He’s a renowned renovator and one broadcaster is hoping Bob the Builder can help lay strong foundations for its future. Discovery Networks, home of the flagship Discovery Channel, has bought the Middle Eastern rights for future series of the popular children’s animation for its Dkids channel, and while it would be an exaggeration to say the global TV company expects humble Bob to fight off the competition presented by streaming services and online viewing platforms single-handedly, he can certainly play his part.

Discovery has always been a broadcaster that caters particularly well to viewers with distinctive interests, with channels such as Food Network and Home and Garden TV among those serving niche, but significant, audience sectors. Now, Henry Windridge, Discovery’s head of brand for the Mena region, says quality children’s programming is a key regional weapon in the fight to retain viewers in an increasingly crowded market. “Like in a lot of emerging markets, there’s a big sense of parents from a poor background wanting their kids to be better educated and have a better life than them, so ‘educational’ programming is a big deal for us,” he says.

iscovery's Henry Windridge. Courtesy Discovery
iscovery's Henry Windridge. Courtesy Discovery

In a region where children as young as seven have a mobile phone, according to Windridge, and with adults often feeling guilty about the amount of time they spend online themselves, parents worry about their children picking up bad habits, not to mention their concern over what their children might be watching on their phones. Windridge says that is where a trusted traditional broadcaster can help. “Research shows that when kids are looking for stuff to watch on YouTube, they’re usually looking for shows they could find on TV – Peppa Pig and things like that. But if you leave a kid searching YouTube for content, you have no idea what kinds of things they might find,” he says. “We’re not advocating using screens as a babysitter, but inevitably there may be times when a child is left alone with a screen. If they’re in front of a TV, at least you know they’re safe from some of the worrying content they could find online.”

Discovery’s strategy doesn’t solely revolve around children’s TV, though. Its channels frequently serve as a form of “edutainment” for adults with shows such as Mythbusters and How Do They Do It? alongside documentaries and other factual content.

Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie ​​​​​​​Hynemman. Courtesy Discovery
Adam Savage and Jamie Hynemman of Discovery's 'Mythbusters'. Courtesy of Discovery

Windridge says targeting such niche markets further is very much on the Discovery agenda. “Pay TV is a contracting market, so what we have to ask is what can we offer that is unique and will draw subscribers to us, faced with evermore competition? We’re doubling down on a strategy of acquiring superfan content,” he says. “For example, we’ve bought Golf TV. We’re buying up rights to the PGA golf as they become available across the world, and we’ve also bought Golf Digest, the magazine, from Conde Nast. The magazine will carry on as before, but we’ll have access to their video library of interviews and features, too.”

The plan is to become the go-to viewing platform for golf fans. “Golf TV is ­basically Dkids for adults. If you’re a golf superfan then that’s the one product you need,” ­Windridge says. “We’re also doing similar things around cycling and food. Our motto is ‘power people’s passions’.”

But targeting underserved markets and driving viewers to traditional TV is only one tactic, and it doesn’t mean that Discovery is oblivious to the digital developments taking place around its traditional TV channels. “Digital content is growing in importance,” Windridge says. “Currently, we’re focused on linear here in the Middle East, but in Latin America [Dkids is among the most-watched Pay TV channel in Brazil] we’ve launched a Dkids app. We call it a ‘garden app’ that you can open for your kids and they have a safe garden to play in.”

Windridge says he expects the Dkids app to launch here in the future, and the company also plans to release an as-yet unnamed global Discovery app – the company has bought global rights (outside the UK and China) to the BBC’s natural history library, which will sit alongside its own extensive library of content. Its ­Eurosport channel already has a popular digital player.

He also points to social media as an area in which his organisation is increasing its digital footprint and cites Dubai-based Arabic food channel Fatafeat as a particularly good example. “We make more than 350 hours a year of original content for the TV channel, but there’s also a wealth of fresh content going on to Fatafeat’s digital platforms,” he says. “We get real-time feedback there, too. We can see what people like and don’t like and immediately make more or less of it for Instagram. ­Fatafeat has passed one million followers on Instagram, and currently picks up about 3,000 new followers a day.”

Fatafeat has also served as a good lesson in how different cultures demand different things from similar content. “When we started with the Food Network 20 years or so ago, we went out to make entertainment through food, which I don’t think anyone thought was possible back then,” he says. “With Fatafeat, people still want to learn, and they still want to be entertained, but a lot depends on the platform. On Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, it’s really fun and lighthearted, but on TV, people really want to learn how to cook the best food for their iftar or whatever. You have to be sure the content matches what audiences want from different screens.”

It seems noteworthy that a conversation that began with a discussion about how ­carefully chosen content can drive viewers to traditional TV in the face of digital competition has come to a point where Windridge is discussing Discovery’s successes with apps and social media. I ask whether, in reality, Discovery is simply keeping its linear services afloat while it prepares for the inevitable death of traditional TV in the cable-cutting era. “I really don’t think so. Our global distribution partners [OSN in this region] are still our biggest strength,” he says. “The majority of our revenue and our eyeballs still comes from them, but the future is changing fast and you need to be ready to pivot.”

Fatafeat's Chef Orfali. Courtesy Discovery
Discovery is serving a niche market with food channel Fatafeat. Pictured above is Fatafeat's Chef Orfali. Courtesy of Discovery

He insists the numbers are quite encouraging. “TV viewing isn’t actually going down, it’s pretty settled,” he says. “We went through a period of rapid change, but if you look at the numbers for a platform such as Netflix now, they’ve kind of settled, too. They’ve not stalled, but are just kind of idling. It’s more of a level playing field now, but we need to be playing on all the fields that everyone else is, too.”

Rather than envisaging the death of traditional TV providers, Windridge says he foresees an even busier time ahead for Discovery and its ilk. “I think the future will be like how supermarkets have a luxury brand, a mid-range and a budget brand,” he says. “We’ll need a version that comes through a huge distributor direct to your TV like we have at present, a direct-to-consumer version such as an app, and probably a social media version. But I’m certain that people will want a big TV in their house for a long time to come, and that the content they’ll require from it will be different to what they demand from an app or from Instagram.”

Updated: August 7, 2019 01:13 PM

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