Discovery's Rich Ross on Being in "Hand-to-Hand Combat" with Netflix

Rich Ross
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Democratic New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn already has received support from Disney's Rich Ross.

The new Discovery Channel president talks down binge watching and cord-cutting ahead of this week's Edinburgh TV fest.

Rich Ross has been president of the Discovery Channel for less than a year, but the veteran exec is not shy about expressing his opinion on the challenges facing the TV industry.

In an wide-ranging interview with The Guardian ahead of this week's Edinburgh Television Festival, Ross took aim at Netflix and the culture of binge watching, claiming it may be running out of steam. “There has been an explosion of available product,” he said, “like anything I think the slack has now been let up.”

Viewers, Ross argued, are starting to run out of the shows they value most highly, leading them back to more traditional TV, which can offer water-cooler moments of shared experience.

Ross' recent success at Discovery — he has overseen two record-setting quarters and is coming off the highest-rated Shark Week ever at the network — is evidence that traditional TV, if done right, can still draw audiences. Ross also argued that Netflix is making a risky bet by making huge investments in shows that could be quickly “binged away.” He pointed to Netflix' financial filings for 2014, which show that the company has almost $10 billion in “streaming content obligations” over the next five years, essentially cash it has promised to pay rights owners for shows. “That’s a lot of money,” Ross said.

He added: “The theory is you unleash the power of the viewer. While I am contending it may be true, or possible, that is a type of viewer. I think there are many viewers, not just older viewers, who want to have a conversation that [traditional] TV and content represent.”

Ross admitted that Discovery is in “hand-to-hand combat” with Netflix and the threat of cord-cutting that SVOD players represent for traditional broadcasters. Like most traditional media stocks, Discovery has suffered of late, with shares down some 40 percent compared to a year ago.

Undaunted, Discovery has gone on global spending spree, snapping up media assets — such as U.K. production giant All3Media, which it acquired together with John Malone's Liberty Global, and French-based Eurosport. Discovery also bid — unsuccessfully — for British free-to-air network Channel 5, narrowly missing out to Viacom International Media Networks.

Twitter: @sroxborough