Discovery Channel President Rich Ross Talks Miley Cyrus, Reveals New Doc Acquisition

Rich Ross
Christopher Patey

"When you work at Disney, the name is a brand and there's an expectation to the consumer, and crossing the line is challenging. ... I have greater breadth in this role [at Shine]," says Ross, whose hobbies include collecting photography, traveling and The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. He was photographed Dec. 10 in his Hollywood office.

The former Disney exec was talking as a "U.S. Gamechanger" at the Edinburgh TV Festival.

Just eight months into his role as Discovery Channel president (and a few weeks after adding Animal Planet and Science to his portfolio), Rich Ross landed at the Edinburgh International Television Festival as part of a series of sessions with “U.S. Gamechangers.”

His third visit to the festival but first with his current employers, Ross gave a candid overview of his more than 20-year career, touching on a moment during his time as president of entertainment at the Disney Channel when Miley Cyrus first auditioned for the role of Hannah Montana.

“She was 12, a little twig of a thing and she said she wanted to become Hilary Duff,” he said. “She was in our offices. Everyone had to sing in our office, around a conference table. But she had absolutely no inhibition, which I think all learned. She very self-possessed.”

Following the success of Hannah Montana, Ross launched another series of high-profile careers with High School Musical.

“We already knew Zac [Efron] because he had done a failed pilot with us and Vanessa [Hudgens] came to us because I wanted it to be diverse,” he said. “I said to them, 'If this works, your lives will change forever.' And an explosion happened and it changed so many lives, including mine.”

Ross also briefly touched on his tenure as head of Walt Disney Studios, which saw hits in Toy Story 3 and Alice in Wonderland, but also major flops in John Carter and Mars Needs Moms, and the break after leaving in 2012.

“It’s a relief. You live in very public place. When I left the studio, nobody didn’t know. Martians knew,” he said. “So I did a lot of soul searching and a lot of lunch. I wanted to meet people and decide what I wanted to do next.”

But despite only being in the Discovery role since January, Ross already talked about how he had started to “evolve” the network, and to “bring it back to everyone, to have more for women, for African Americans and for Latinos.”

On Discovery’s tradition factual side, he discussed Racing Extinction, the Sundance bowing doc from Louie Psihoyos about animal species on the verge of extinction.

With Psihoyos being a activist, Ross said he was keen to know what impact Discovery could offer the feature.

“I said, 'Well, we can air it in primetime all over the world. In December, it’s going out in 200 territories and countries,' ” he recalled.

Ross also revealed that Discovery had acquired the documentary Sherpa, which tells the story of the Nepalese on Mt. Everest who carry hiking supplies for the international climbers.

“[The film crew] were there during the recent catastrophe. They captured something that is pretty stupefying,” he said, adding that Sherpa would air next spring.

The Edinburgh International Television Festival runs until Aug. 28.