Rich Ross has two primary missions ahead of him as he takes the reins of Discovery Channel: Diversify the cabler’s male-centric audience and restore its credibility in the documentary world after a series of questionable programming decisions.
Ross made his first public appearance as Discovery topper Thursday as part of the cable group’s presentation at the Television Critics Assn. press tour. He was candid about the challenges ahead for Discovery.
“The channel is more narrowly niche that it needs to be,” Ross said. “Being more inclusive to women and younger men is a way for us to build back the audience. We want to be the No. 1 TV brand not just for men but for the whole family.”
Ross emphasized that he’s focused on bringing more scripted programming to the channel and more high-end docu fare. He signaled those as priorities with the appointment of producer John Goldwyn to oversee the expansion of scripted and HBO docu alum John Hoffman as head of documentary programming.
Goldwyn is already closing in on some properties to put into development. Ross wouldn’t comment on specifics but said they were leaning toward historical-themed limited series that would run between four and 10 hours.
The hiring of Hoffman, meanwhile, is a statement to the production community that Discovery aims to get back to its roots in the docu field after generating a lot of criticism in recent years for using re-enactments and other questionable practices in a range of programs. The channel also strained credibility with its sensationalistic promotion of the “Eaten Alive” special that promised to depict a man being eaten alive by an anaconda snake.
“I don’t believe you’ll be seeing a person being eaten by a snake during my time,” Ross said. He called that special a problem of “misleading” marketing in an overzealous effort to draw viewers. Hoffman is an Emmy- and Peabody-winning producer with a long track record of prestige documentaries produced for HBO.
“Authentic” is the watchword going forward, Ross said. “That needs to be the filter for everything we have on the air and everything we’re thinking about moving forward (with).”
Ross indicated that Discovery will move away from the live stunts that have been so prominent on its schedule, such as the recent blindfold tightrope walk by daredevil Nik Wallenda.
Speaking to reporters after the session, Ross said that the Wallenda-style stunts “may have run their course” for the time being. “We can do things that are live, but we don’t have to make it as much of a sideshow (type) event,” he said.
Ross comes to Discovery after spending the past two years heading Fox’s Shine America banner, where he worked with scripted and unscripted shows and was deeply involved in adapted foreign formats. That’s good training for the job ahead at Discovery.
Ross’ boss, Discovery Communications topper David Zaslav, noted in his opening remarks that the Discovery group now makes more money from its international operations than it does in the U.S. That international focus can’t help but influence the programming decisions made in the U.S.
“To be able to reach out to that international team and find out what works and what doesn’t work” will be invaluable, Ross said. He and Hoffman are about to do a tour of Discovery overseas outlets to meet with their counterparts. The U.K. and Japan, in particular, are markets where Discovery U.S. should be partnering on large-scale nature and docu programs, Ross noted.
The scope of Ross’ perch at Discovery could represent a return to form for the exec whose star rose steadily at Disney on the TV side — he was a key player in orchestrating the growth of Disney Channels Worldwide — until he was tapped to oversee the film studio in 2009. After a rocky tenure marked by internal struggles and the mega flop of “John Carter,” Ross resigned under pressure and left Disney in April 2012.
Discovery’s 13 U.S. channels and its growing production assets could offer Ross ample opportunities for advancement. But for now Ross is focused on restoring the luster of Discovery’s flagship channel.
“How great is it for me to be able to walk in a room and not think about which hat I’m wearing today,” Ross said of his laser focus on beefing up Discovery Channel.