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A version of this story first appeared in the April 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Rich Ross has had a busy first three months as Discovery Channel president.
The Disney alum hired John Goldwyn and John Hoffman to oversee scripted and documentary efforts, respectively, and moved not only to broaden the network’s narrow male bent but also to push back into genres such as science and forensics from which his predecessor had retreated. To date, his efforts have proved successful, with Discovery up 14 percent in total viewers since he arrived. The slate Ross intends to share with ad buyers this spring will include an expanded Shark Week; an extinction doc that his team bought in a competitive situation at Sundance; Cuban Chrome, the first-ever reality show filmed in Havana, Cuba; and his first scripted effort, a miniseries about the pair who founded Harley-Davidson.
“I saw that Discovery could be a male-driven brand without being a solely focused male brand,” the Los Angeles-based exec tells THR. That means developing with a broader mind-set — Ross envisions his core viewer as a 40-something guy who watches with his wife or girlfriend — as well as tweaking and rethinking the marketing for the network’s current programming. For instance, he took Alaskan Bush People and not only recut it to incorporate storylines for women but also ran promos on female-friendly sibling TLC. The strategy appears to be working: Discovery moved up six spots to become the No. 10 ad-supported cable network for women 25-to-54.
Similarly key as Ross puts his mark on Discovery, which had suffered from a few soft quarters, will be a move away from the kind of fake or stunt-ish fare for which the network was garnering a reputation. Discovery’s credibility had been considerably undermined by docu-fiction programming including Shark Week’s 2013 Megalodon special and December’s sensational Eaten Alive entry, which promised viewers a man being eaten alive by a snake. Ross, who insists he’s eager to “entertain” and “intrigue” without “fooling” viewers, won over the press and the seller community when he said, “I don’t believe you’ll be seeing a person eaten by a snake during my time,” during a press conference in January. “It’s only led to greater interest,” he says of the comment, adding: “People are coming to us globally and essentially saying, ‘Phew.'”
The decision to hire HBO veteran Hoffman to oversee the docs and specials department was another clear signal of the higher-brow direction that Ross would like to take the top five cable network. “I’d like to go back to doing classy, thoughtful documentaries and specials,” says Ross, noting that Louie Psihoyos’ Racing Extinction, the doc that his team won in a Sundance bidding war, falls squarely in that category. The project, produced by Paul Allen‘s Vulcan Prods., will follow a group of artists and activists on an undercover operation to expose the hidden world of endangered species and the race to protect them against mass extinction.
In the nonscripted space, Ross says he’ll be focused on having his “unscripted be truly unscripted.” In his bid to reposition the network ever so slightly, he has committed to embracing genres that the net has retreated from in recent years. Among them: science and forensics, which is why the producers of new entry Killing Fields didn’t think Discovery would be a good fit initially. The latter will incorporate the latest advancements in technology to reveal the deep history attached to remote fields that often are used to bury bodies and cover up other crimes. Investigations will be followed in real time through the course of each episode as unmarked graves are uncovered and attempts are made to discover the truth and bring resolution to unsolved cases.
On the scripted front, Ross intends to rely heavily on historical tales, which explains Harley-Davidson as his first big swing in the arena. Based on a true story, the mini will tell how 19-year-old Milwaukee schoolyard pals William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson built (and rode) the motorcycles that rule the road. Harley, which Ross is eyeing for early 2016, promises to be full of spectacular crashes and family feuds. Ross has said he’d like to introduce roughly two scripted series per year.
But don’t expect an entirely new Discovery under Ross, who spent a couple of years at Shine after a long tenure at Disney. His slate will continue to include hits such as Deadliest Catch, Fast N’ Loud and Gold Rush, and he’s planning a summer Naked and Afraid spinoff, Naked and Afraid XL. The social challenge will revolve around 12 former Naked and Afraid survivalists — six men, six women — who are dropped solo without food, water or clothing for a potential 40 days and 40 nights. “There’s no game to win. This is about the power within yourself to survive and to help others recognize that in themselves,” says Ross. “We’re not trying to rip people apart. We’re trying to build them up, and that to me is very Discovery.”
Here’s a look at Ross’ slate:
Killing Fields: An investigative series takes a closer look at the country’s remote “killing fields.”
Naked and Afraid XL: A spinoff featuring 12 former Naked and Afraid survivalists who are dropped for a potential 40 days and 40 nights.
Treasure Quest: An adventure series about a group who is hunting for a horde of stolen Incan gold off the coast of Brazil.
Pacific Warriors: A series focused on the only commercial fisherman who kayak solo on the rough Hawaiian waters.
Lunar XPrize: A series that pits 30 engineering teams against each other in a bid to launch and land a robot on the moon.
Cuban Chrome: A Havana-set series about vintage cars and the rich stories behind them.
Diesel Dave: A series centered on “Diesel Dave” and his team at DieselSellerz who sell tricked-out diesel trucks.
Harley-Davidson: A miniseries about how two 19-year-old Milwaukee pals founded the global biking brand.
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