Mel's Diner: Everyone Needs a Little Marjorie

Why the Discovery, TLC and Animal Planet group president won’t blame the landscape for Q3 ratings, and why canceling 'Honey Boo Boo' was an easy decision
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THE DISH: Marjorie Kaplan does not stop for a sit-down breakfast very often these days, which is understandable.

Before meeting at 8:30 a.m. at Community Food & Juice, two blocks from her home in the Columbia University neighborhood of New York City, she had already been “running”—literally and figuratively (she went for a run, and in the understatement of 2014, she’s especially busy at work right now). Following two restructures this year, she now oversees Discovery Communications’ top three flagship networks— Discovery Channel (interim), TLC and Animal Planet—as group president. “My work life right now is so engaging. Let’s call it that,” she says with a laugh. “It’s hectic, but it’s really engaging so that I kind of live from moment to moment.”

The shifts for the exec, who is credited with growing Animal Planet for the company, started with an “out of the blue” 7:30 a.m. phone call about a year ago from Discovery Communications’ chief David Zaslav. “I was surprised, but it’s very exciting to be given a new challenge,” she says of her initial reaction. “For me it was a huge and exciting change because the content at TLC, while I was a viewer, was new to me as a creative person. And a lot of the production companies and certainly the whole team, while I knew peripherally, I hadn’t worked with them.”

While she might be working outside the box at Discovery, having a bite here at Community means Kaplan is quite literally at home. A native New Yorker, one of her first jobs out of college was at New York magazine at a time when she was the only member of the editorial staff who was born in New York. “I was very proud of that,” she says. Also: She raised her two children in this neighborhood and Community has long been her “weekend place,” because it “has a focus on food but not in a fancy way, and where my children and my husband can still eat bacon.”(Kaplan is vegetarian).

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The current crush may ease a bit, once former Disney and Shine America exec Rich Ross takes the reins of Discovery in January. Prepping for that transition is a big focus for Kaplan. In a discussion of the many things on her plate, Kaplan touched on the big Q3 cable ratings dip, canceling Here Comes Honey Boo Boo after the revelation that series star “Mama June” Shannon was dating a convicted child molester, whether she expects more restructuring soon and more. Edited highlights of the conversation follow.

Right after you gained oversight, TLC did really, really well in the ratings…

The first half of the year. Spectacularly.

And then like most cable networks, in the third quarter it came down. What do you attribute that to? Do you think there is something going on landscape-wide?

It would be lovely to blame the whole landscape. I do think that it’s a challenging time in the business. And there were absolutely things in the environment in third quarter that were hard. But part of this business is cyclical, and you can’t always be up. The network had had a very strong third quarter the year before. And we had shows that are great shows but they just didn’t come back as strong. And we really had to dig in and say, ‘OK. What happened to us on Sunday night? What happened to us on Friday night? What can we learn?’

One of the great things about TLC is that it really is real. So in a world of reality TV, of non-scripted television where the audience is actually saying, ‘We’re frustrated with how unreal reality is,’ our audience says about TLC, ‘what we like about it is that it’s not reality TV. It’s real TV.’ So that’s spectacular. It’s particularly spectacular when terrific, exciting or challenging things are going on in real people’s lives. But if people’s lives aren’t quite as interesting for a season as they were the season before, that’s reality. That’s the real world.

And so some of what you have to manage in this business is the reality of the lives of the people that you’re following.

Now I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t ask about Honey Boo Boo. My understanding is that there was no gray area in that. What can you say about your discovery of the situation there and deciding to cancel the show?

Some things are absolutely clear….When we heard from TMZ [about “Mama June” dating a convicted child molester] we pulled everybody together immediately. The financial implications of the situation were enormous. But it was absolutely clear. You have to have values. Look, one of the things that’s wonderful about working for Discovery Communications is that it’s a purpose-driven company. All of our brands are purpose-driven brands. And so it’s a privilege and a responsibility to act in a purpose-driven way. I could imagine there would be places in this world where it might be a question whether you should do this. But here we get to act based on our own best instincts. And so literally there was no question. And it was only a question of how quickly could we literally make it happen.

The good news is that we were no longer on the ground in production.

So the next season was shot.

Totally shot. I mean everything in the can, going into post. All the money spent. And we canceled the show. But we have maintained tutoring for the kids. We’ve offered counseling. We’ve had security on the ground. We said we have a responsibility to the children to the degree that we can have some appropriate action.

[Editor’s Note: On Discovery Communications’ earnings call with analysts last month, Discovery CFO Andrew Warren said that the company would be at or close to the bottom end of its previous guidance ranges. The estimate includes “approximately $20 million of anticipated 4Q content impairment charges mostly associated with our recently announced cancellations of Honey Boo Boo and Sons of Guns.” broadcastingcable.com, 11/4/14]

You’ve described taking on new network brands as a little like falling in love, where you’re so excited that you feel like you have boundless energy. To go back to your analogy, you’ve sort of had this year-long courtship, at least with TLC now. What do you see in the year ahead? Do you see a stable relationship leading to…?

Leading to marriage?

Leading to marriage! In other words, do you see things being settled structurally for a while?

I imagine things will be settled structurally for a while. I would say nothing in this crazy business that we are both in is stable. And I think you have to decide to find that exciting.

I certainly believe that one of the things I learned from being married to an artist [Gus Szabo] is that the best way to motivate creative people is to pose the most interesting problem. Creative people don’t like to be told what to do. They like to be challenged to think and to create. So what’s going on in the business, within the businesses that I run, within the company that I’m part of, and within the whole landscape that we operate in, there are a lot of really interesting problems. That’s my job—to find those problems exciting. And to fi nd ways to communicate about those challenges to people in ways that make them feel like they’re empowered— by the way, to people internally and to external partners. Because we need everybody. A huge part of my job is to make sure that I and my team are open to the creative community in a way that makes them want to be our partners, and makes them feel like if they come to us with ideas, we’ll make them better together.

I know you are very much a creative person. So I’m curious how, with all the business and the volume of oversight now, you maintain your connection to the content and how you apply your creativity. How are you doing that?

I’m having a blast. I mean I will say it is totally overwhelming and consuming. And I think part of my job at this point is triage. I mean you do have to recognize that you absolutely cannot do it all. I am very lucky. I do have Nancy Daniels on TLC as general manager. We elevated Rick Holzman to general manager on Animal Planet before all of this happened and he’s terrific. So I have really strong leaders in place. And so to be in a position where you know the team so well—you trust the team—you do have to be able to empower other people so you can survive.

I go running, which sustains me. It’s a lot of work. I watch a lot of cuts. I’m not getting as much sleep as I should be getting.

I hear you watch a lot of cuts.

I watch a lot of cuts. Over the weekend, I’m watching 12 cuts. But my first three cuts of the weekend, I watched the first hour of Eaten Alive, which is this big noisy show that’s coming on Discovery, which is spectacular and not sensationalist.

That’s quite a title. What’s the logline for that?

The show is about an environmentalist who adores anacondas and the natural environment they live in in the floating forest. And he’s determined to protect them and will do anything noisy, crazy, loud to get them the attention they need and their environment needs to survive. He is hoping to be devoured by an anaconda in order to learn what that experience is like. And then live to tell the tale.

How is he planning to do that?

Well, it’s already been done, thank goodness. And he and the anaconda have both survived. Everyone is well and healthy. You’ll have to watch on December 7 to see what happens.

It’s a special. It is a two-hour event. It’s the kick-off to Mega Week on Discovery. It’s beautifully done…and an amazing, kind of audacious adventure, but it’s also a celebration of a part of the world and creature that is legendary.

So he literally was eaten and came out?

I’m not going to tell you what happens in the end. But it has been his passion to engage with these huge creatures and to get himself eaten so that he can bring attention to them and also so that he personally can learn about how they function, how they constrict, what kind of pressures, how big they can become, how they swallow their prey and, you know, how they function. They are the apex predators of their part of the world. And apex predators are crucial to the survival of ecosystems.

And this is for Discovery Channel only, it’s not a roadblock?

We’re not doing it as a roadblock. Just Discovery. Saturday morning, I woke up before my husband was awake, and I started to watch. And I watched the first hour of that, a rough cut. First of two. I watched a show on TLC that we haven’t announced yet, which I would love to tell you about, which I’m very excited about. I watched a cut of that. I watched an Animal Planet cut, completely different, totally different, about our relationship as human beings to the wild, natural world.

You know, it’s very creatively stimulating to go from one thing to something totally different. I think it’s important to look outside the world that you work in for stimulation, but for the moment the amount of stimulation I’m getting within the world I’m in, to have to shift your brain from brand to brand, from content to spreadsheets, to personnel, to marketing, to management. You know, in some way, each of those, because it’s so different, is also a creative stimulation. And then I guess for me the biggest thing is that I’m married to an artist. So you know, that fundamentally opens my eyes to things and experiences that I wouldn’t otherwise have.

What kind of art does your husband do?

He does different kinds of art. So he does illustrative art. He does sculptural pieces. Right now he’s doing landscape work.

Meaning outdoors?

Outdoor pieces. And we have a friend who is staying with us right now who is a Hungarian artist and filmmaker. We have a lot of creative stimulation in our lives, largely because of my husband. It’s great. I mean, my husband would say, ‘What are you talking about? I never see her these days.’ And it is, my work is really absorbing. And at some point, it is really important to make sure you have a life that is enriching beyond what you do in the office or what of your office you bring home, so we have to get back to that.

Walk me through, if you will, all the changes. How did that conversation go initially? What did David Zaslav say to you?

I was in my living room and the phone rang. My husband was sitting in the chair. I was getting ready to walk the dog. It was Dave [Zaslav]. I answered the phone at 7:30 in the morning. And he says, ‘We’re going to make a little change.’ So he explained to me that he would like me to run TLC along with Animal Planet. And he said to me—I was very quiet because I was completely shocked—‘I think this is a terrific opportunity for you. You love brands. TLC is a brand that really needs to be thought about and reinvented and have some meaning for the audience. You’re very audience focused and I think we really need to be focused on the audience here. And it will be a great stretch for you. It will give you an opportunity to think differently, to demonstrate your chops in other ways. You’ve done kids, you’ve done men, and you can do women. And that’s great for you and it will be great for the company.’

And so I listened to him, and I said, ‘Thank you. What a great, exciting moment.’ I hung up the phone and my husband said, ‘I’ve never heard you so quiet on the phone.’ It was just such a bolt out of the blue. It was really exciting. But I will say, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god. I don’t know the team well. I knew them, but I don’t know them well. I don’t know the production community in this world well. I have a big learning curve.’

I watch TLC but I didn’t watch as much as, you know, I would have had I known this was coming. And I literally turned on the television set and I watched TLC all day long and all night long. And I went to bed that night and I fell asleep and I dreamed of a tagline for TLC. And I woke up in the morning and I knew the new tagline. And that’s not the kind of creative I am. I am not the kind of person who comes up with ideas by myself.

This was, ‘everyone needs a little TLC’?

‘Everyone needs a little TLC.’ I literally woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning and I thought, ‘Ah! I know the tagline!’ I’ve never had that happen before. I’ve never had that sense. I’m not the kind of person who dictates to a team. I don’t walk in the door and say, ‘This is going to be the new tagline.’ But I walked in the door and I said, ‘I have the new tagline.’ It was very exciting. It was kind of electrifying for me. Because when you take over something new, you want to have a great partnership with the team and you also want to be sure you can add value. And so when that happened, I thought, ‘I think I can add some value here. I think I can help the audience understand this brand.’

In the first 24 hours you’ve got a tagline. That’s pretty impressive.

That was pretty wild. Although I will say, the job wasn’t public for a while. So I had to sit on the tagline for a while. But it was exciting!

Actually, for me, a-ha moments are things that are incredibly interesting but usually very obvious. It’s like sitting on a piece of research and you hear something and you think, ‘Of course!’ And it’s so powerful because it’s so obvious. This idea was so obvious that I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it’s been tried. Maybe they did it years ago and there’s a reason why we can’t do it.’ I thought, ‘We won’t be able to use it.’ And then to find out that it had never been tried. Pretty exhilarating.

Let’s talk about Animal Planet for a minute. So you have Rick there in place as GM, obviously that’s still part of your purview. Where do you see that going? What’s the next step for Animal Planet?

I think the reason we were able to grow Animal Planet is we found something in the zeitgeist that was really exciting, that we could tap into. I think it’s something that’s only grown since we discovered it, which is this desire for connection to the wild. That the more our lives become technologically driven, disengaged from the natural world—we say the more we lived air-conditioned lives—the more we crave some sort of connection. I think that’s one of the reasons why people have pets, but I also think you can see in the choices people are making. No. 1, how they’re actually literally living and the things that they are watching on television or reading about or seeing in movies or the things they’re looking at online, the sort of desire to connect to something that feels a little more raw, a little more physical, where you can feel the wind blow. I think that that’s the core insight for Animal Planet that really gives us unlimited growth potential.

I’m a big believer in connecting to the audience and I think that’s so powerful, when you look at where the world is going. I think our job is to figure out how to tell those stories. Wouldn’t it be better if we could all literally get out in the physical world? Not everybody is going to do that all the time. So how do we give people that kind of experience? That visceral feeling, but also something that taps into them emotionally. How do we tell stories and share characters with them that connect them to that in themselves?

In terms of opportunity from a brand standpoint, yes, there are challenging moments from a ratings standpoint but in general, it’s also not just about the animals. The animals are like a way to mainline it…That connection to animals, it makes you cry. It moves you in a kind of way. But it’s really about connecting to the wild, natural world. That allows you to talk about the planet as being an animal, sort of. And it speaks to the kind of range and it lets us do things and it lets us stretch the brand into places that the audience is saying they want us to take them.

Who do you see as your main competition in that? Are you in particular watching what Nat Geo is doing? You have a whole network called Nat Geo Wild.

Sure, sure. Of course you have to look at Nat Geo Wild. You look at the success of something like Dr. Pol on Geo Wild, and you think, ‘OK. That’s exciting,’ because it says that there is an audience for this kind of content. And it also means, OK, they need to not eat our lunch in that space. And I think what we’re talking about is just that it’s a much bigger palette than that.

Also, when you’re looking at competition these days, it’s not about the other television channels only. You’re competing not just with what’s on television and everything that’s on the Web and every other possible entertainment, but you’re competing with everything that’s ever been on television. If I want to binge on something that I loved when I was 25, I can find it. It just speaks to the importance of finding content and ideas that connect at a whole other level because competition is increasingly insurmountable.

Why is Eaten Alive on Discovery and not Animal Planet—or both?

First of all, because they had the idea. It was their show. It was a Discovery show that I stepped into and inherited. The production company is a terrific company and we’re actually working with them on other projects. So it started there.

I think that it could be on Animal Planet. One of the things about it—Discovery is such a big brand. The power of the word Discovery is so big that there’s a lot that fits under that umbrella. And a lot of the channels in Discovery Communications were actually sort of seedlings from the Discovery brand, so it makes sense that there would be overlap. And as those seedlings grow, that overlap increases in some ways. I think that the ethos of the brands are different. And it may seem subtle, but I think it’s our job to explore that subtlety.

There’s no closer connection to the wild than being eaten by something from the wild.

That’s right. But I think the Discovery audience’s interest in that is different than what the Animal Planet audience would be. And in ways that are subtle, so it’s not to say that it couldn’t be done as a roadblock. For example, Life, the big BBC event series, is a roadblock across Animal Planet and Discovery and TLC, because there are some things that are relevant and I think that’s exciting. We look to find the right intersections and then to find the places where we differ.

Animal Planet is a more dual-skewing brand than Discovery is, so there are things that we do to try to make sure that we’re engaging a female audience a little bit differently. I think at Animal Planet, we think of ourselves sort of as the stewards of the biological life of the planet. And Discovery’s relationship to the life of the planet is a little different than that.

I still wonder, do you have Rick say, ‘Hey but I love that.’ How do you manage the two brands?

Actually, one of the things that has been terrific about being across both of the brands in an official capacity as opposed to a partner capacity is it has enabled me to have those conversations in a very concrete way. And to say, ‘OK. These are all the shows that I’m looking at right now. Which ones make more sense in which places and how do we do that?’

When you don’t run them, you have to partner on them. The reality of life is that it’s matrixed because Discovery is a very matrixed organization. And so you have to be partners in the matrix. I think there are times when Discovery looks at Animal Planet shows and thinks, ‘Why don’t we have that?’ And times when Animal Planet looks at Discovery shows and thinks, ‘Why don’t we have that?’ But I think that the good news for the company is, well, we get to have them all. I think our job on whatever business I’m on is to be the place that people want to bring their best ideas.

Not a bad problem to have, to have people looking at what their partners are doing and admiring and envying it.

Exactly, and to feel like you can be partners and to feel proud of what’s happening on Discovery or what’s happening on Animal Planet as opposed to feeling like, ‘Why not me?’

That’s why I think it’s important to have a brand vision, which is different even if there is overlap. Because there are plenty of people who are playing in the same space. I mean, again, we are competing with more than television, but just to look at television, you have Nat Geo, Nat Geo Wild, History, A&E, truTV, CNN. We have plenty of people sort of in that same world. So you have to figure out if you’re interested in something, what’s new and different? Why is it more right for you? How do you use that to make your brand more powerful and more meaningful for you audience?

How does the Honey Boo Boo situation fit in among the most impactful or crisis decisions you’ve had to make about what’s right for your brand and audience? Have you had anything more serious than that?

No, things that involve children’s lives, I don’t think there’s anything more serious than that.

I’ll tell you about a crazy moment. One of the first things we did when I came to Animal Planet was completely transform the Animal Planet brand. You know, at TLC it is an evolution. At Animal Planet, it was a revolution. One of the most revolutionary things we did was we launched a series called Whale Wars. And we greenlit Whale Wars, which was a very bold decision at the time. I mean, I like to say that risk doesn’t look risky in the rearview mirror. But boy, at the time, it was.

What made it risky?

Well, it was risky on so many levels. First of all, we were dealing with an organization that had been called—although not by us—eco-terrorists: The Sea Shepherds. From a production standpoint, they went out into the Antarctic into the whale sanctuary for three months on a boat. We had to decide to put cameras on that boat within maybe two weeks of the decision to go. We had no idea what we would get.

They had their regularly scheduled trip?

They had their regularly scheduled campaign. They were going after Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean. They go out every year. Hopefully someday it will stop and they won’t have to go anymore. They were going out and we had decided to get on the boats. We knew we couldn’t get off the boats until they came into shore. We figured it was about a three-month campaign, so we had a major financial commitment. We had absolutely no idea what we were going to get. They might have gone out and never seen a whale because that is a hell of a big ocean. So from a financial standpoint it was the first major decision we made. It was in the millions of dollars and the risk was that we might have gotten literally not a single hour of television.

But it was also so bold for what this brand could stand for. We’ve sort of launched a whole new idea, which was muscular conservation. So there we were. Crew on these boats doing muscular conservation not knowing if we were going to get one single moment of footage. That was really brave.

It’s very dangerous. These boats, they ram each other. The weather can be catastrophic. It’s so physically dangerous. People are killed in the Southern Ocean on a regular basis. In fact, one season, there was a boat that went missing and the Sea Shepherds tried to find them and they never found them. And so you’re putting crews on these boats.

During one season, I think it was the second season, I’m in bed, it was in the middle of the night, the phone rings and it’s my head of business affairs, Julie Wolf. I must have picked up the phone kind of unconsciously without really realizing what I was doing, because I suddenly hear her say, ‘WAKE UP!’ So I must have been talking in my sleep! And she’s telling me on the phone that the crew—they heard from the crew on the boats—and that they’re terrified. And the situation has gotten so dangerous that they’re afraid and they’re wondering whether we can get them off the boats. And of course there was absolutely nothing we could do because they were out in the middle of the Southern Ocean. So I’m on the phone in the middle of the night just talking with Julie Wolf about the fact that our crew is worried that they’re going to die and we can’t get them off the boats.

They were fine. The season was amazing. They wanted to go back the next year. They were so proud of what they had shot and so afraid that they were going to end up in the water that they were putting tapes in their wetsuits—whatever they are, they’re kind of cold suits. Because when you’re in danger in the arctic water, you know, you put on these suits that can keep you alive in the water for some period of time. They were tucking the tapes into their suits. But they were afraid that they were going to end up in the water. So that was a moment.

Wow, that was serious, too.

I would say that had a happier ending.

THE DISH: Marjorie Kaplan does not stop for a sit-down breakfast very often these days, which is understandable.

Before meeting at 8:30 a.m. at Community Food & Juice, two blocks from her home in the Columbia University neighborhood of New York City, she had already been “running”—literally and figuratively (she went for a run, and in the understatement of 2014, she’s especially busy at work right now). Following two restructures this year, she now oversees Discovery Communications’ top three flagship networks— Discovery Channel (interim), TLC and Animal Planet—as group president. “My work life right now is so engaging. Let’s call it that,” she says with a laugh. “It’s hectic, but it’s really engaging so that I kind of live from moment to moment.”

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