Discovery's Peter Liguori has his hands full in his new job. He is overseeing three new launches (OWN, The Hub and a 3D network) and ensuring the continued growth of the company's ID, Animal Planet and TLC nets. Liguori spoke about his role with B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
What's it like for you being back in cable?
The difference here [in cable] more than anywhere is a focus in maintaining brand integrity. When you're in the broadcast business, as much as we would like to think that there is a big difference between a Fox show and an NBC show, I think that difference has narrowed increasingly over the years. You can't get paid for brand as much as you get paid for ratings there. We would all waver from brand dogma to achieve higher ratings. Here, we would do nothing to damage our brand.
If I had a choice between cheap ratings for Discovery and maintaining the Discovery brand patina, and how it's served affiliates and advertisers and audiences for its 25-year history, I'd always play to the brand as opposed to a specific event.
Are you saying Fox goes after cheap ratings?
Now that I'm not there any longer, no. Now, they're all quality all the time. But when I was there with my high heels on street corners looking for ratings, quality meant nothing!
Do you have more autonomy at Discovery? Do you feel like you're not expected to play politics?
With me, you're probably talking about the wrong guy in terms of playing politics. I'm here probably because I didn't play politics. And I've always felt that it's the job of an executive to do right by the business and not right by [himself], and very often, especially in this business, you have to make that choice.
What's so wonderful here is that [Discovery Communications President and CEO] David [Zaslav] has created a culture where people are celebrated for furthering Discovery's mission. And so it does feel more like a team. There's a greater long-term perspective in cable than there is in broadcasting, where you're living day to day.
What are your expectations for OWN?
You have to temper expectations while fanning the flames of ambition. It is very difficult to launch a new network, and it is very difficult--even with the number-one brand name in all of media with Oprah--to start and launch a network. So, on a financial basis, you plan conservatively. Fortunately, Oprah is incredibly engaged. She is looking at all pieces of programming.
OWN was supposed to launch in 2008, but hit some road bumps. Will it launch with a perception problem?
I certainly don't think it had any perception negativity with the audience because the audience hasn't been aware of when the date was going to be. If anything, it gave the troops more time to hone their vision. With Oprah's talk show winding down, it's going to give her more time to get involved.
Defining a brand takes time. Is Oprah's brand defined enough to translate to a niche cable channel?
I think the answer there is yes. There is a very specific psychograph that defines Oprah's brand, and that Oprah's brand services. Bravo is clearly geared to the highest echelon on the edges of the coasts; a very narrow brand. When you look at Lifetime, that's a network that appeals to older women, based on older ideals. Oprah's brand is way more populace. She speaks to women in the interior of the country as well as on the coasts. And Oprah's appeal is one that is psychographically highly defined.
I know you're looking for a CEO for the 3D channel. So, what's going on there?
No announcement yet. But it's a big deal.
The Human Planet is Discovery's next big-event program, set to bow in about a year and a half. Is that being shot in 2D and 3D?
No, that was shot in 2D. We will see what and where we can upgrade from there.
Has the success of Planet Earth and Life inspired more major-event programming?
You have to do these shows. You have to provide value to cable operators, events for the audience and advertisers. And this is what Discovery does best. And that's one of the things we're doing better and better, which is taking this programming and not having [to wait] to have it pay off in the back end, but having it pay off in the front end. It exports beautifully. We're able to monetize it in every country that we're in. So, we're inspired to do more of it because it's actually been quite efficient for us.
Has there been a sea change in the cable versus broadcast battle?
The difference between broadcast and cable is getting narrower and narrower. We're almost in the same number of homes. The audience perceives no difference in the quality of the entertainment experience. And in fact, they might even have reverse expectations, especially when you're dealing with a brand like Discovery. And the only thing that's left is, can we eventually get that gap in CPMs narrowed further? Time will tell.
But don't you have to get bigger audiences if you're going to narrow CPMs?
One, we are, and two, not necessarily. If you are looking for brand awareness marketing a ubiquitously used product, broadcast is a good deal. However, if you need to be more targeted and more efficient with your buys, you go to cable. So, the expectation and need for higher ratings, I think, is one that is felt more by presidents of networks and reporters, and less so by marketers.
The Hub is going up against huge kids brands--Nickelodeon and Disney--with tentacles everywhere. How do you distinguish The Hub?
When I look at what's going on at Nick and Disney, [The Hub President and CEO] Margaret [Loesch] has rightly pointed out that Nick and Disney have started migrating toward an older tween audience and that The Hub will go after that opening of the 6-12 audience, especially kids who watch TV with their families. Secondly, that network is launching with great brand names, not only the Hasbro name but the sub-names--G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake--and these brands are well known to the kid audience and their moms. It's a very different kettle of fish than what you're seeing on either Nickelodeon or Disney. Plus there still is a great desire to have an underpinning of Discovery Kids programming, namely programming that has quality and a message to be told there.
So, I do think there is a great distinction. And also from a marketing standpoint, [we have] tremendous synergies with Hasbro and its ability to market to kids and its great brand extension as more than just a toy company, but also a media company.
How will you program the 3D network? Do you do 3D versions of Discovery programming? Will you convert some programs from 2D to 3D?
You typically will shoot 2D and 3D versions. But it's not one size fits all. For standard shoots, you really just take your 3D camera and you put it on top of your 2D. But if you wanted to maximize effect, for instance with spots, if you were to use the highest camera position and put a 3D camera on top of your regular 2D, you would not notice a dramatic difference. But if I took that 3D camera and went down courtside, on the field or ringside, you would notice a massive difference.
So, there will be a mix; there will be some [programs] that we will upgrade. There will be some where we will shoot both. And there will be some that will be 3D from start to finish in that the whole production technique and the whole reason for being is to make that experience as immersive as possible. I think we have to offer a number of events on that 3D channel. They don't have to be by night or by week; maybe they'll be by month at first, so that people can really can enjoy and celebrate what the technology can do.
TLC got a big ratings bump from the Gosselins' breakup. Do you think TLC has successfully capitalized on that?
I think [TLC President and General Manager] Eileen [O'Neill] has truly honed the brand and its strategy. It's wonderful to see how everyone on her team, from her head of development to someone in accounts receivable, knows what that TLC brand is. They took advantage of the new audience that Jon & Kate brought to the network. Currently the network has 15 shows that have audience of more than a 1.0 household rating. I attribute that to incredible vigilance on her part and a terrific gut. The GMs are friendly competitors; ID is one of the fastest growing networks out there. And we haven't begun to hit our stride on that. [ID] is a network that is nearing full distribution. We're not there yet. But clearly there's a huge audience appetite for it. We have great channel position in New York, and that network rates off the charts when it has a bit of awareness filling its sales.
[And] look at Animal Planet. It is breaking month-by-month, quarter-by-quarter ratings comparisons. And I give [President and General Manager] Marjorie [Kaplan] big credit. She's taken the network from just being cuddly, fuzzy pets to discussing the human stories.
You seem happy in your new gig. But do you miss the rough-and-tumble broadcast business?
I'm extremely happy in my new gig. I love television. I love the creative energy that flows through the halls of these companies. I love the strategic business challenge. But after doing this for 20-odd years, what is really refreshing in this gig is the quality of the people and the dedication to the mission and the great calm and comfort that people have with that mission. You know, you walk in the front doors here and people feel like they are truly providing a service. They're trying to put quality content on the air. And it attracts a specific type of person. David Zaslav is an outstanding leader, an outstanding CEO and an incredibly smart and likable guy.