Discovery has used its position in the Italian free TV space to secure a programming deal with Ben Silverman’s prodco Electus. VP of programming Laura Carafoli spoke to Clive Whittingham.
The challenge for Discovery Networks Western Europe has long been to continue growing the business in a stagnant market.
All over the world, Discovery Networks International is launching new channels – TLC reached more than 100 million new subscribers last year – and growing audiences in territories where the pay-TV market is expanding day by day.
But in many parts of Western Europe the pay-TV market has plateaued and the full portfolio of Discovery channels has been rolled out.
It’s in these areas that Discovery has been keen to innovate and hunt for alternative routes to growth. In September, the company launched a free-to-air channel in Spain and then this March bought a 20% stake in French pay-TV company Televista, which is planning to expand into the country’s free-to-air market.
Free-to-air has also proved to be an option for Discovery in Italy, where two of its seven channels are freely available without subscription. Female-skewing Real Time and male-orientated DMax are currently focused on ratings growth after launching in 2005 and 2011, respectively. They complement Discovery, Discovery Science, Discovery World, Travel & Living and Animal Planet on the nation’s pay-TV platforms.
Discovery is keen to point out there is no change in focus for the company overall. “Discovery is a pay-TV business and will always remain one,” a spokesman tells C21. But the company says free-to-air has been successful in mature markets.
Discovery’s portfolio makes it the fifth biggest broadcaster in Italy, with a 3% audience share that rose to 3.4% for June. Real Time is the country’s eighth ranked channel (seventh among females) and DMax is already ninth most popular among men, less than a year after launch.
There are advantages to a free-to-air presence other than the opportunity for audience growth though, as shown this week when Discovery Italy signed a first-look deal with Electus, Ben Silverman and Barry Diller’s production venture in the US. The agreement takes effect in October, when Real Time will air the NBC version of Fashion Star, fronted by Elle Macpherson, and DMax will show the first season of Spike’s American Digger.
The partnership will initially run for two years and will give Discovery Italy a first-look at the non-scripted catalogue from Electus’s global distribution arm, Electus International.
Laura Carafoli, recently promoted to VP of programming at Discovery Italy after overseeing the launch of Real Time and DMax during her four years with the company, tells C21 that Discovery’s presence in Italy’s free-to-air space has helped it to secure the deal.
Carafoli says: “I don’t think Electus would give us the first-look if we were only pay-TV because they are obviously looking to sell free-to-air rights. The fact we can acquire both free and pay rights definitely helps.
“This opportunity to have a first look at all the non-fiction content from Electus is very important to supplement our offering. We’re very keen on signing deals that can supplement the energy and power of our free-to-air and pay-TV channels.”
That “energy and power” is helping to lead a change in the content of Italian television in general. In 2009, pubcaster Rai TV launched Rai Historia, a history-based factual channel, and Discovery continues to prosper in the country despite there not being, in Carafoli’s words, a “factual culture” in its TV business.
“In Italy, it’s strange that a completely non-fiction company like us, with non-fiction channels like Real Time, is so strong within the mainstream, free-to-air market,” she says. “There is no culture in Italy of factual entertainment because there is no big, free-to-air channel that is investing in factual. Now things are changing.”
Discovery Italy hopes to drive that change by using Electus’s experience in the digital and dual-screen space as well as on its linear channels. “Our goal is to continue to innovate and explore all possible definitions of factual, to try to interact more in digital through our website with our audience,” Carafoli says. “Our reality content is so close to everyday life that it creates a strong link with the viewers.
“Electus is able to do things that other companies are not able to do. From the beginning it has had a very strong multi-platform approach. For instance, Fashion Star is something that is not only on TV; it lives outside TV in shops and on the web. This is something that’s innovative and we’re looking for these kinds of shows for Italy in the free-to-air market.”
Although Discovery is initially taking finished US programming from Electus, the aim in the medium term is to produce local Italian versions of the company’s formats. While Carafoli says “pure factual” remains the aim for the company’s male-skewing channels, she sees potential to learn from Electus and produce local lifestyle series.
“Some of the content is really linked to an American culture and way of life; it would be difficult to recreate an Italian Digger, for example,” Carafoli says. “But for shows like Fashion Star or other lifestyle shows we can, in 2013, try to also exploit the format.
“Pure factual content is our goal for the male channels and fortunately we have great content pipelined from Discovery US and Discovery Networks International. For the lifestyle and factual entertainment, we have to investigate a little bit more. [Electus CEO] Chris Grant and [chairman] Ben Silverman were at Shine with Biggest Loser before Electus and we have something to learn from them.”
There’s nothing innovative about taking US programming and showing it in Europe but the size of the two companies involved makes this deal stand out. When the venture starts to produce original content – either Italian versions of Electus formats or original productions resulting from what Discovery Italy learns from the partnership – things will really start to get interesting.
Both companies could stand to make big inroads into the Italian TV market.