Discovery COO: How we'll market Sarah Palin
Peter Liguori talks to THR about upcoming Alaska docuAfter a long stint at News Corp., where he was president of entertainment at Fox Broadcasting and before that president and CEO of FX Networks, Peter Liguori joined Discovery Communications this year as COO. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with him recently to talk about his plans for the Oprah Winfrey Network, kids channel the Hub and whether a Sarah Palin-narrated TLC documentary about Alaska presents a marketing challenge.
The Hollywood Reporter: You joined Discovery about eight months ago. What have you focused on most?
Peter Liguori: First and foremost, I am trying to be a good partner to Zas [Discovery Communications president and CEO David Zaslav], who has done an unbelievable job with the company. He brought me here to help him make the transition from being a platform and distribution company to being a true content company. Discovery continues to improve on its ratings. Just look at "Life," which had the biggest start [in 10 years]. TLC has 17 shows doing a 1-plus [rating], Animal Planet has been turning around. Clearly, his and our focus has paid dividends -- even with something like "Shark Week," which is 23 years old but still winds up improving on its numbers versus a year ago.
THR: You're also helping rebrand networks, one of which is the OWN venture that has experienced a few bumps along the way. How is it coming along?
Liguori: Launching a network from whole cloth is a really difficult task. Christina [Norman] is a really admirable CEO, but at some point when you are looking at a blank scheduling board, it's nice to have someone (points at self) who has started some networks, has some objectivity and can work to help her have the assets that she needs. And Oprah has just been a really, really strong partner; she has been very heavily involved. She knows her brand intimately, which is a luxury, because Christina can go to Oprah. She can be ambitious and broaden out what your brand represents, yet go to the source and see what's too far and what's not ambitious enough.
THR: In what form will viewers see Oprah on the network?
Liguori: Oprah knows her name is on the door. She would not have done this unless she was going to put her personal imprint on this. She is the chairman of the network, so she sees everything that gets produced. In terms of her on-air presence, she is going to really be -- noticeably -- on the network. She will do her next talk show, called "Next Chapter," which will be on the air three or more days a week. It will be different from her studio show and more intimate for her, more personal. She has done a show, "Master Class," in which she [picks] political or social or cultural icons who have influenced her and really haven't had that kind of one-on-one dialogue [to talk about themselves]. She is also opening herself up to her own reality show, which is behind the scenes of her [talk show's] 25th season. I've got to give her credit for a lot of courage there because producing daily television is an adventure, and to do it with cameras rolling ... there will be an unvarnished look at how that show is produced.
THR: How strong is the Oprah brand?
Liguori: Her season premiere did a 7.8. She is the female equivalent of the NFL. She is bringing her rabid, fervent audience to cable. I'll give you an example: She has "Your OWN Show," where we will search for the next great talk show host. She got more than 140 million votes for that just through the Internet -- we are not on the air yet.
THR: But can one person carry a whole network? Martha Stewart's programming block on Hallmark Channel started slowly.
Liguori: Martha is a personality; Oprah is a way of life. Oprah's intention is for everyone she touches to live their best life. That's the programming strategy. It's not Oprah 24/7; it is lead your best life 24/7. That can accommodate anything from Oprah talking about doing her next talk show to following Sarah Ferguson rebuild her life to outstanding documentaries, which challenge you to think. It is her life philosophy that fuels the network, not just her personality.
THR: You've said that with OWN, you will see higher cable fees. When will investors start seeing that benefit, and how much higher can fees go?
Liguori: We don't comment on affiliate negotiations. But there is tremendous value in the Oprah Winfrey Network. Once it articulates itself on the air, it will articulate itself as a value to our cable affiliates, advertisers and our audience. And it will be a value to our stockholders because there is tremendous potential that is not recognized by Wall Street, but will be.
THR: Tell us a bit about how you experienced the recent hostage situation at Discovery headquarters.
Liguori: I would prefer not to.
THR: What is Discovery's plan for international growth?
Liguori: When you look at Discovery versus its peers -- let's say Viacom, by way of example -- our content travels incredibly well. If you are doing a story about natural history or space, those shows are not native but universal. Advantage two is Discovery has one of the -- if not the -- strongest brand names in media. People worldwide know what that brand means. Cable affiliates want that brand. And third, there is so much more penetration to be had out there.
THR: But how do you plan to capture those viewers?
Liguori: It's not good enough for us to be sitting back and saying our Discovery programming travels well. It's a two-way street. My challenge to the people in Europe and in Asia and Latin America is, which programming are you going to export to us? Where are the great formats and who is a terrific character? There is a whole new world of creative opportunities out there, and it's really changing the mind-set of our international programmers and marketers and researchers.
THR: The Hub, the kids-network joint venture with Hasbro, launches Oct. 10. How do you make it stand out against Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney XD?
Liguori: First, [CEO] Margaret [Loesch] (who worked with Liguori at Fox) has identified a bit of white space in the kids marketplace. Nick and Disney have grown really robust businesses by going after girl tweens, and that's a great market. Margaret is going after the younger boy -- middle-aged, if that term can exist. Two, we go toe-to-toe on branding. Discovery partnered with Hasbro, which means Transformers, G.I. Joe, Monopoly and Strawberry Shortcake. And third, we can create programming that leads in and out of other characters and stories that can become new robust businesses for us. It won't be easy, but we have a strong strategy and leader.
THR: How will you market TLC's Alaska documentary narrated by Sarah Palin? She is a polarizing figure.
Liguori: The company has always been very successful [with marketing], but very modest. "It's OK to be noticed," is what I have been trying to preach. Indifference is the death of content. What do you do to compel and capture and create conversation in a way that's valuable? I have focused more on the philosophical than the tactical approach, although tactics have come out of it. We took "Life" and made the big, bold move of premiering it across all of our networks and did the biggest [ratings] number in the last 10 years. Something like Sarah Palin? She is one of the most compelling figures on Earth. So, why not? I'm trying to be more than anything a bodyguard for our programmers' and marketers' best instincts.
THR: Where does your 3D network venture with Imax and Sony stand?
Liguori: I remember the first HDTVs that were out, and walking from one media mogul's office or house to another. When they wanted to show off their TVs, the first channel they would turn to was Discovery. Discovery had the first digital suite, the first stand-alone HD net. Each evolution was intended to make the experience more immersive. So 3D was a no-brainer for us. It's the right thing for our brand. But we can only grow as fast as the televisions are sold. We will launch probably in the first quarter of next year with a slate of programming that highlights the possibilities of 3D. And we will very pragmatically invest further in programming along with the penetration of 3D sets.