Peter Liguori Is Doing His OWN Thing

One year into his new job, the former Fox executive is discovering that life in nonfiction (and dealing with names like Oprah and Sarah Palin) makes for good stories
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One year ago, Peter Liguori brought his show-biz background
to Discovery Communications, a giant in nonfiction cable programming,
and has been guiding some of the company’s most
important projects, including next month’s long-awaited and
much-discussed launch of Oprah Winfrey’s network, OWN.

As chief operating officer, Ligouri not only
chairs Discovery’s Content Committee but
oversees Discovery Studios, marketing, business
affairs, media technology, production
and corporate communications. He also has
a key role in budget and business decisions.

The move to nonfiction programming-based
Discovery was a big change for Liguori,
who came over after being let go abruptly in
early 2009 by Fox, a network he helped steer
to its leadership position in the 18-49 demo.
Prior to that, he was CEO at FX Networks.

Liguori spoke with Broadcasting & Cable
Business Editor Jon Lafayette about how he’s
settled in at Discovery, how Hollywood fits
into its plans, and of course, what it’s like
working with Oprah. An edited transcript of
the conversation follows.

OWN has been through some wellchronicled
fits and starts. Is it on track
now, and have the reports of disarray at
the network been fair?

It’s definitely on track, and I think that’s behind
us. They’re attempting to do something
incredibly ambitious. If you look over the past
10 or so years, there really haven’t been soupto-
nuts cable networks that have launched
anew. And it’s not The National Network is
now TNN and one new show gets put in
there, or wrestling gets put in there and lo
and behold it’s a whole new network. This is
new from 6 a.m. until 3 a.m. the following
morning. That’s a bigger task, and inevitably
it went through some growing pains. With the
naming of Christina [Norman] as the CEO,
her hand is firmly on the rudder and the network
is going to launch Jan. 1. Do any of us think the
network’s going to be perfect Jan. 1? No. But this is something
that’s the quintessential marathon, not the sprint.

What would a successful launch look like to you in
terms of reviews, ratings and finances?

First, I think it’s being true to the Oprah brand. Look, we’re placing a bet on one of the great media icons that
are out there today. If she’s pleased with the creative and
the look and feel of the network, I feel that’s job one.
Two in terms of success is being widely distributed and
having strong ad sales. It really is about A, the artist.
The other A is the affiliates. The third A is the advertisers.
And of course, probably, the most important A is
the audience. Is the audience getting what
they would expect from Oprah?

Is there a timetable for paying back the
$189 million Discovery is pouring into
this channel?

There’s not really a timetable, but it gets paid
back starting from dollar one.

What has it been like working with
Oprah?

You know, great. She’s incredibly involved. After
25 years of honing her brand and defining
her intentions it’s a clear path, a clear creative
vision for the network, and it’s really fun to
work with someone who’s able to articulate it,
who’s willing to roll up her sleeves and work
with it. And she is who she is because she’s a
wonderful leader and a really uplifting person.
So it’s been nothing but a blessing.

Have you started to see affiliates paying
up in terms of higher license fees?

We don’t really comment about affiliate deals,
but needless to say we’ve signed a number of
deals [and] we’re in really fruitful conversations
on others. One of the good things about
this whole process is the affiliates recognize a
couple of things. First, that out of all the cable
networks that are out there—and let’s even include
the broadcasters—we’re bringing value
to cable. And so that has helped us in conversations.
And we’re also bringing value in the
form of a known entity in Oprah.

Think about it—one of the hardest things
about retrans is, in the past a broadcast network
would come into an affiliate and want
to get paid for retransmission consent. The
broadcast network was never really paid, but the parent
company was paid by providing a cable entity that they
would get distribution for. So really broadcasters would come to the table with added value for a cable operator.
Fox: launch FX, give us 25 cents a sub, you’re welcome
to the Fox Broadcasting Corporation. All the broadcasters
are coming to the negotiating table saying, “I’m not
going to bring anything new to the party, but I want to
monetize our broadcast networks.” That’s really the difference
[in] this round of retransmission consent. That’s
an opportunity for us. We sit there as a dyed-in-the-wool
cable company, recognizing that we’ve had 25 years of
terrific relationships with our affiliates, recognizing that
we’re not going to come to them and ask them for something
that doesn’t add value and isn’t earned. We come to
them with The Hub and we come to them with Oprah.

Do you have an audience level that you’re looking
for with OWN?

I’d love to see us beat what [Discovery Health] had. And
probably beat it by a multiple, you know 50%, 100%.

I heard that Oprah wants you full time. And how
do you say no to someone like that?

I’m not there full time. I’m there to be an objective third
party who understands and has been imbued by Oprah’s
vision and someone who has launched cable networks
before. Clearly, Christina is the leader of that network and
I’m there to help in whatever way, manner or form I can.

Other than OWN, what have been your highest
priorities at Discovery? I guess that would
include launching The Hub?

That was really, I hate to say it, but a really easy task.
Margaret [Loesch] is terrific, she’s experienced. That was
easy. Working on OWN, and in terms of joint ventures,
the Sony IMAX 3D network has also been a priority.
Learned a ton there.

But then there’s the mothership. This is a cable entity
that always welcomes outside thoughts. It’s helping the
Discovery portfolio move into being more of a content
company and having a creative culture and expanding
what we do. I think I’m just a new ingredient
into a tried-and-true recipe that’s trying to
force a little bit more of a creative matchup here.

One of the other things we’re looking at is how
to reinvent our own studio. We’ve done a couple
of first-look housing deals with some tried-and-true
producers who are going to help develop for
us, and we’re going to bring them ideas.

You’ve got a Hollywood background, and
Discovery has had a hit-and-miss relationship
with Hollywood. What’s the relationship
with Hollywood and Discovery at this
point, and what do you want it to be?

I think it is very solid, and
I think there’s opportunity
for growth. [The best example]
by far and away is
doing projects with Steven
Spielberg and bringing him
into the fold. I’ve had many,
many conversations with
showrunners and writers
who actually made their
bones in the scripted world
who are interested in bringing
us concepts and ideas
because, let’s face it, a lot of
the fodder for the successful
television shows that are
scripted happen to come
from a factual incident, arena,
concept or basis.

Also in terms of improving
relationships with the
community, we brought
in Lee Bartlett [as executive
VP, global production
management, business and legal affairs]. He was kind
of the dean of the deal, someone who is well known
within the community, who has their respect, who understands
the give and take, what it takes to get some
of these deals done. And he’s not only just a business
affairs guy, but is also becoming a leading force in terms
of our production strategy. So that’s been helpful with
Hollywood and very helpful internally.

Discovery_Chart.jpg

Is there room for scripted programming at
Discovery?

It’s something we discuss a lot, and I’ve had a few conversations
with agents and producers. How we do it will
be important. But we’re open to it because we have some worldwide brands. We have Liv [the Latin
America entertainment network]. TLC has
some scripted programming oversees. We
need to look at our networks as not merely
domestic vehicles, but international vehicles.
One of the great drivers of our company, one
of the great upside opportunities of the company,
is we tend to produce programming which travels well. Do I
think we’re ever going to
veer very far from our core
as the No. 1 nonfiction
company on earth? No. But
we can opportunistically
dip our toes in the water.


Before you got here,
there was a lot of turnover
in general managers
and the networks
looked to increase ratings.
Are we at a fairly
stable place in terms of
who’s running the bigger
networks?

I think the turnover really
was a byproduct of we as
a collective company and
a portfolio doing our job of
defining what those brands
are. And I think at this particular
point, Discovery has
done its best job [and] is at its peak in terms of understanding
what those brands are, and therefore from there
how to execute. So I feel like the stability of brand knowledge
has never been better.

For example, at TLC, what’s that brand and what’s
its audience going forward?

Eileen [O’Neill] has an incredible grip and understanding
of the TLC brand. TLC is a place that people come to
to see families and characters in all different shapes, sizes
and colors, who actually are functional. They typically
are families. They work well together.

To be sure there’s been more controversy on the
networks between the Sarah Palins and the
Sister Wives. Is controversy something that
there’s room for in the Discovery brand?

I don’t think we actively seek controversy.
There is nothing really tabloid-ish with either
one of those shows, in one person’s opinion.
When you look at both of those shows, the end
result is this: people will say I’m not about to
become a polygamist, but I look at those people
and he genuinely seems to love all four of
his wives and all four of his wives seem to love
him. They seem to be leading productive lives
and yeah, despite the fact that I’m not about
to take wife two or husband four, an audience
certainly looks at that family and sees a different
way of getting along and loving and being
a family unit.

And as far as Sarah Palin goes, I think [producer
Mark] Burnett and Eileen and her team
have done a masterful job not being political
with that show. We’re well aware with that
show that people who dislike Sarah will probably
not be changing their mind, and people
who like Sarah are probably going to like her more. But
the mission of the show is to have Alaska’s currently
most famous citizen be out there and show you her
state. And if you as an audience member or a member
of the press want to project your politics on it, that’s
your prerogative. But again we seem to be showing
a very functional family enjoying their state, enjoying
their lifestyle and doing it with proper intentions. And I think that’s what the audience plugs into.

The media industry seems relatively buoyant financially
compared to the rest of the economy. Is that
something that you see continuing going forward?


I‘m extraordinarily bullish on the media sector. It’s
just a human instinct for us as a species to want stories
and to want information and to expand our world and
right now where other entertainment choices may be
somewhat limited because of the economy—going to
restaurants or vacations or whatever—there is greater
emphasis placed on maximizing your time at home
and maximizing the simpler, less expensive pleasures
in life. That’s where media, that’s where storytelling,
that’s where expanding one’s world comes in.

One reason why companies are doing well from a
profit point of view is there were a lot of cost cuts
over the past few years. Is there anything that was
cut that can be restored, or done in a new way, now
that revenue is up?

One of the things that [Discovery CEO David] Zaslav has
done a really yeoman’s job of is being a disciplined businessman.
Never has there been a reaction of ad sales down,
economy tight, let’s just mindlessly cut. He’s always taken a
broad, long-term business perspective. What do we need,
what don’t we need? What people, functions, investments
will create long-term value for our portfolio and our shareholders?
And that’s been a guiding principle. And since I’ve
come here, I’ve got to say it’s really freeing and incredibly
refreshing. Currently all of us are bene! ting, and we as a
particularly hot group of networks are enjoying the benefits
of a very strong ad sales market which is still going strong.

Because of Zas’ very disciplined business approach, we
have the money and the room to invest to increase
our market share and explore the full potential
of each and every one of these brands, not only
domestically but internationally, and we’re seeing
explosive growth as a result of investing in these
brands. So I’m very bullish about where Zas has
positioned our business, and eternally optimistic
that the next group of great storytellers will come
walking through our doors and unveil something
that will be the next big, iconic, plate-shifting deal.

Are you looking at making acquisitions?
Are there areas that you need to shore up by buying something?

I would suggest there’s nothing
imminent, but we’re always
looking for opportunities,
we’re always looking for
growth. But we do it within
our business plan, our business
strategy. We have tremendous
cash flow, but we
don’t get deal fever. We will
make deals that make strategic
sense, which will be of value
to the portfolio worldwide
which will create value for our
shareholders. It’s not just about making deals. And let’s
face it, even throughout challenged economic times, we
invested in the business. International has grown, we created
partnerships with The Hub, we invested in [Discovery]
ID, made it grow not only in terms of ratings and in
terms of advertising, but in terms of greater distribution.
And our portfolio of networks are up, while you’re looking
at broadcast being down, and you’re looking at a lot of
cable companies having their ratings being sanded down.
And it is because David’s been disciplined from a business
standpoint, allowing us to have the money on hand to
do some of these more ambitious partnership investments
and also while investing in the core brands.

It seems like you’re pretty busy. What’s a typical
day like for you?

A typical day is everything and anything. In many instances,
I’m a little like a fireman. I have a plan at the
start of the day and once a fire happens, the day takes
me where I need to go.

What are the main things you need
to deal with? Is it mainly programming
stuff?

No, it’s a broad array of things. It’s strategy,
programming strategy, it’s marketing
strategy. It’s taking a look at what are our
processes and how we can squeeze the greatest
amount of creativity out of the proverbial
heartbeat of the company.

Was it a big adjustment moving from
a broadcast network back to cable?

Not really. The basic tenets of great storytelling remain the same. It’s all about focusing on great
characters, giving their stories tremendous stakes, and
seeking new places and new arenas, which expand people’s
world. It’s a strategy that’s worked for 25 years, not
only on Discovery but for every one of the other networks,
and it’s always fun to see what the next beat is.

Do you miss being in the Hollywood orbit?

We are in the Hollywood orbit. When you realize where
a lot of our shows come from, they come from Los Angeles,
New York, London-based producers, and these
guys are creating production companies and businesses
and shows that are every bit the rivals and equals of
the broadcasters, as evidenced by the fact that [cable
networks have] almost two-thirds of the ratings points
that are out there right now.

Does that mean that working for the broadcast
networks is overrated in terms of a career in
television?

No. By far and away, they’re there. They’ll be there for
a long time. It’s not a potshot at a broadcaster—it’s
just a true recognition and celebration of the vitality
of cable. To me it’s a difference in style of storytelling,
and I daresay, more exciting. One of the things that’s so
challenging from a scripted standpoint is how to keep
a scripted format fresh and keep an audience surprised
and have a level of unpredictability. These are all the
things that audiences yearn for. It is what storytelling
is all about, and the second things feel a little bit formulaic
or predictable, it comes across as stale. When
you’re dealing with nonfiction programming, one of the
great advantages and the biggest opportunities is frequently
you are focusing on real people responding in
an authentic fashion to real stresses and real challenges.
That’s unpredictable. That’s lean-forward programming,
and I think it’s a great advantage for creatives.

You’re a big sports fan. Any way to do sports at
Discovery?

I think that we’re always open to new opportunities
for non-scripted programming, and though sports has
never been in our wheelhouse, certainly we’d be open
to opportunities. I think we’d all have to recognize that
that would be a fairly large step outside of our core
competence and regular programming strategy.

So you’ll have to find another way to get seats to
the games?

You know what, good old-fashioned begging and overpaying
seems to have been working for me these days.

E-mail comments to
jlafayette@nbmedia.com
and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette

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