Ross Signals Shifts at Discovery #TCA15

New network president plans scripted push

Expanding Discovery Channel’s scripted programming efforts is a top priority, the network’s new president indicated Thursday during an executive session at the TCA winter press tour.

Rich Ross fielded questions from reporters roughly 72 hours after officially beginning his new role as Discovery chief. In October the network announced that Ross would join it from Shine America, where he had served as CEO. On Wednesday, Discover announced that it had hired producer John Goldwyn to assist with expanding scripted development under Ross.

“I know that there are over 45 networks now doing scripted, but a lot of those networks no one watches a lot,” Ross said. “This one, it’s a top 10 network. It’s a huge network for men, and I think we have a huge opportunity, signaled yesterday with the hiring of John Goldwyn, to launch in the scripted arena more aggressively.”

The expansion of the scripted slate will be gradual, according to Ross, who said that he hopes to have two new scripted series on the network by the end of the year. He indicated that historical drama will be a major part of Discovery’s scripted development.

“It’s very hard to do history, as we can all imagine, in the unscripted series arena, but it’s an incredible place to do scripted drama in the history vein, and we’re already talking to producers who have properties and are very close to buying one,” Ross said.

He also addressed the network’s current slate of unscripted programming, signaling that a shift in tone is imminent. Asked whether projects such as Mermaids and other documentaries with fictional elements will continue to have a place at the network, Ross said, “It’s not whether I’m a fan of it. I don’t think it’s actually right for Discovery, for Discovery Channel, and it’s something that I think has in some ways run its course. I don’t think you’ll be sitting hear next year asking me a question about something I put on, whether it’s a series or a special, that that’s the dilemma.”

Ross pointed to another new hire — that of John Hoffman as executive VP of documentaries and specials, announced Thursday morning — when fielding a question about criticism from the scientific community about Discovery’s Shark Week programming.

“[Hoffman] has a long history of telling great and authentic stories and working with scientists and doctors and everybody in between,” Ross said. “It was not just a signal. It was a message that it’s very important to us and very important to me that when people are telling stories and delivering information that it’s true and that it can be entertaining as well.”

Other highlights from the session included:

• Asked about criticism that programming at sister network TLC such as Sister Wives promote unhealthy or controversial lifestyles, Ross said, “Frankly, what I’ve learned working in big network groups is that my day job is my job and I don’t criticize other networks, whether they’re inside our family or outside and what they do. I just have to worry about what I do. I understand that being a dilemma. I think on our network, and certainly this new opportunity for me, a lot of heroes are found in a lot of places and a lot of great stories are found in a lot of places.”

• Ross’ first international trip as network president has been scheduled — to Istanbul, for a gathering of Discovery’s international executives. “One of the most exciting opportunities for me joining this company, which is the No. 1 pay-TV provider in the world, was to be able to reach out to the international team, frankly both to find out what works and doesn’t because so many of the channels around the world feature our programming, but more importantly, based on the last two years of my experience, what opportunities may be adaptable here,” he said.

• Ross was asked about the network’s recent special, Eaten Alive, which promised to feature a man being eaten by an anaconda, but sparked complaints on social media when the show’s subject, Paul Rosolie, called off the stunt as the snake placed its mouth around his head. “The way I look at it was that it was the right intention with a packaging that was misleading.” He added, “I don’t believe you’ll be seeing a person eaten by a snake during my time” at Discovery.