StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Discovery & A+E Networks – Streamers & Legacy Networks: Opportunities for Producers! Transcript #2-3/3

Find in the transcript the detailed data and strategic analysis shared by Dan Salerno and Liz Levenson in their webinar covering programming strategies by three major unscripted platform groups.: Nat Geo / Disney+, Discovery / Max, and A+E Networks.

Watch the webinar here.

One unsettling trendline they weigh in on:

Original Hours

  • Discovery+ 2021: 1,200
  • Discovery+ 2022: 400
  • Max 2023: 46
  • Max 2024 ytd: 43

Following is the transcript for Discovery and A+E Networks. 

Dan Salerno and Liv Levenson – June 13th, 2024


L:  I’d love to hear from you, how about Discovery Networks and their relationship to Max, their sister streamer.

D: Yeah, and it’s obviously their history is a little bit different. I don’t mean their genre of History, but the history between the services are different because they kind of got married a couple of years into the streaming era as opposed to Disney+, which was kind of born, you know, by both parties right out of the gate. So wthere’s a couple of points to mention.

First of all, Discovery Channel, and we’ll limit this to Discovery Channel, there’s another whole discussion we could have about their other brands like TLC and ID, which is very robust as well. Not so robust, as we’ve talked about in the past, are Animal Planet, Science. I’m kind of thinking Travel might be moving more towards that world as we see things migrate from Travel to Discovery.

But Discovery Channel thus far, and we’re only six months into the year, thus far we’re tracking almost 30 new titles on the channel. Now, a lot of those are legacy series. But there’s a good number of those that are first seasons. And I try to keep an eye on first seasons because the first season is effectively something that was new to the network and also means it’s an opportunity for producers. If all the network is doing is renewing its existing slate, then it doesn’t matter how good your idea is when you knock on the door, there’s no room at the inn. But in Discovery’s case, when I was looking, they had about 28 new projects, either series or limited series, slated so far for this year, calendar 2024. Nine of those are first seasons. Now, limited series by definition are automatically first seasons, but nine series out of 28, it’s about a third of what they’re putting up there, are a new opportunity. Now, how new is that new opportunity? Of the nine new projects, three of them are actually coming from new producers to the brand as best I can tell. They’re actually new to working with Discovery Channel, right? The other six are producers that they used for this project over here or this project over there or whatever. But there still are opportunities there. It’s not a closed system.

L: And Dan, in those projects that you’re seeing greenlit by Discovery, are the genres in line with what Discovery has normally programmed? Are they taking risks? Are they branching out in any kind of way? Are we seeing the same sort of programming over and over again?

D: Well, it depends on which era we refer to. If we refer to the original era of Discovery, you know, its first 10, 20 years, they pivoted obviously away from some of that core traditional science, history, wildlife content many, many years ago. But in more recent years, I think the stuff they’re commissioning now, it’s a blend of stuff that is consistent with the sort of more reality-based offerings that we’ve been seeing the last decade or so. There are some new things that are starting to creep in. Remember, the management has changed. Howard Lee, who had done such a fantastic job growing TLC really into their, I believe, their number one or number two network overall within the Discovery portfolio, they brought him over to Discovery. Really, they didn’t take away anything, they added Discovery to his purview. And you can start to see the influence he’s having now with the new slate of commissions that they announced a few months ago. Some of them occupy a similar space. Mud Madness is a good example. It’s a little bit in the gearhead space, but not quite. And in that same vein, the Street Outlaws franchise, which has occupied a single night of the week for years, has really sort of faded. And frankly, they haven’t had a Street Outlaws on for six months.

There is still something coming that they’ve been sitting on a little bit, but it looks like they’re kind of pivoting from a straight gearhead to what kind of content might the gearhead lovers really go for that we’re moving towards. They’re definitely focusing on a little bit more character-driven type of stuff. We’ve seen that they added a gold series into their gold franchises. Another new property one coming up sometime soon, they haven’t announced when.  A weather-based series that I’m sure will bring sort of all sorts of new tech and so forth. At the same time, they have also started to pivot some of the premier series like Ghost Adventures off of Travel Channel and onto Discovery. I think that’s the consolidation we were referring to earlier that we saw with Animal Planet and Science. Some of the better performers.  They’re circling the wagons around Discovery to keep it robust in this kind of world where you maybe can’t protect all 28 networks that you run.

L: Interesting. And is Discovery Plus a thing of the past as they pivot more toward Max?

D: Yeah, it is sadly. I think sadly for a lot of folks because when they announced the merger with Warner, they simultaneously announced that they were ultimately going to merge the two primary services, Max and Discovery Plus. Later on, they realized that, probably through listening to their consumer base, there was a number of people that were interested in Discovery Plus but not the upcharge for all of the stuff on Max. So what they’ve offered effectively is Discovery Plus all by itself with the Discovery content, but there are no originals. And there haven’t been any originals for the better part of probably 15 months at least. There were some stragglers in the early part of 2023, and those have now faded for 2023 and 2024. Once the merge occurred, you then started to have Max Originals effectively. Now, some of the things that they commissioned as Discovery Plus just took on a new label and premiered on Max. But if you really look at it, unfortunately, you’re not seeing a whole lot of commissioning in the non-fiction space for Max. I actually did hear from a friend of mine who’s an agent at one of the multitude of agencies out there in LA that said that Max doesn’t even really have a non-fiction budget itself. So anything I think that shows up on Max is coming through the entertainment side most likely, or maybe for any number of reasons, they decide to pivot it off of Discovery or off of TLC or whatever and onto Max for whatever reason they may decide internally.  On Max itself last year, with the tracking that we did, we only found 46 hours of Max original content in the non-fiction space. Now, a slight silver lining in 2024, our count thus far for the year, presuming that some of the projected projects land in the calendar year, right now we’re projecting about 43 hours and there may be some more announcements to come. We’ve still got a good portion of the year to go, so maybe they’ll exceed last year’s total. But when you compare that to Discovery Plus in 2022, which had 400 hours, and in 2021, its launch year, it had nearly 1,200 hours of originals. So you’re talking about, when we talk about contraction in our business, 1,200 to 400 to 45 all in the space of a three-year period, that means there’s just less work for producers, which we know has sort of a trickle-down effect for everybody.

L: That really does raise alarm bells. Wow, that’s really shocking.

D: When you look at those numbers in that context, it kind of just hits you, doesn’t it?

L: Yeah, I was just saying, my producer brain just absolutely melted hearing that. But better to be informed so you can focus your time and your strategy and your pitches on maybe more Discovery’s linear channel to decide if that might be a more effective pitch. Not to mention the numerous Discovery networks around the world that I think are also still trying to work on their strategy and figure out based on what’s coming out of the US.

D: I think that’s key too, Liz. I think you’re absolutely right. It’s a great point. While they, unlike Nat Geo where it’s like a digital-first mindset almost, it’s like we’ll commission things really with the digital platform in mind and then we’ll find a way to use on our linear platform. Discovery in the non-fiction space seems like they are still pushing heavily on the linear side but just with fewer brands. Discovery, TLC, HGTV, Food, and ID, and then let’s set Magnolia all aside because that’s mainly a subset of Max right now.


L: Interesting. So it’s a different approach, but not necessarily worse, but different.

Well, speaking of different approaches, I definitely also want us to touch on A&E networks because they are the one network group that doesn’t really feel like they have a connection specifically with the streamer. That seems like a very conscious choice that they’ve made.

D: Yeah, Peter and I would talk A&E when streaming first started up. We used to talk about, are they getting left behind? Are they going to sort of find themselves without a real place in the industry as everybody’s moving into their streaming service? And now it’s almost the opposite. It’s sort of like, you know, they become this sort of free agent gun for hire if they choose to be. You can look at A&E has been very successful in its catalog sales of its main franchises. They’re selling it into FAST. They’re selling it. Discovery Plus and Max I think still have some of it. You can see it on Tubi and Pluto, and you can’t even name all the platforms so you can find things like First 48 all over the place, which, you know, when you’ve got 400 episodes of something, why not? It sort of is a revenue generator and it’s brand exposure as a whole. At the same time, they seem to be, A&E and History overall, they are continuing to commission at a really healthy rate in general. They’ve got to date on A&E about 25 new titles declared for the year, nine of which are first seasons, again showing opportunity exists. History’s got about the same number, about 26 new titles I think in my last count. Half of them are first seasons, and that’s kind of quite impressive. What neither one of them is doing much of are specials, and frankly neither is Discovery or Nat Geo. Specials are becoming really difficult to place, whether the two-hour feature docs or singles. But History and A&E have done rather well. What’s interesting is if you watch a promo for any of them, it’ll say, you know, tonight the new episode of 60 Days In, streaming tomorrow. And I say, well, streaming tomorrow? Streaming where? There’s no A&E Plus. Well, I think their reference to streaming tomorrow is their VOD platform on their own sites, on your cable sites, etc. So they’re probably fudging the words a little bit to kind of fit into a paradigm that has been created, whereas if you hear Discovery or Nat Geo say streaming tomorrow, you know it’s on Max or Disney Plus or whatever.

L: But one of the things that struck me a little bit just in recent conversations, it seems like A&E and History very specifically are very loyal to their current audience. I think it used to be all about getting new eyeballs. To me, it seems like both networks are very much leaning into the audience that they have, making sure that they’re catering to them and making sure that they have content that that audience will like. As somebody who’s been in this business for a long time and a TV watcher for a long time, I think it’s great.

D: I think that’s true. And there’s a real lesson in that too, right? They know who they are and they’re super serving that audience. I mean, the most extreme examples of that are ID and HGTV, right? But without a doubt, A&E knows heavily where it’s at. It leans heavily into the crime genre, but it also kind of is peppering in a lot of these other things, including the wrestling stuff. And then they’re going to have a run of these music bios that they’ve been sitting on for a long time. They finally are going to hit coming up in a few weeks on a Sunday night. I think History is staying within the history place, but where you do see some of these new things, it may not always be promising for all producers, but there clearly is this desire to bring in celeb-driven or celeb-behind-the-camera sort of thing. They announced a couple of series that are with, was it called, I think it’s Cap 2 or something like that was the production company. I just know as a Yankees fan, I know Derek Jeter was involved in the production company. But they had a series with Pierce Brosnan fronting. They’ve got series with, oh my God, Lawrence Fishburne is has been doing quite well. Peyton Manning had a series. So they’re leaning into some of the celebrity presence, you history kind of stuff. They’re keeping it so it’s not sort of your father’s History Channel in that sense. It’s a little bit more current. But at the same time, they continue to provide these anchor sort of limited series on usually presidents. They’ve got a couple of those coming up that for core history fans, those usually tend. They just finished one on, The Great War, on World War I a few weeks ago that was quite good. I think that came from Radical Media, if I’m not mistaken. But yeah, that’s kind of where they’re sitting right now.

L: Well, I’ll say it’s an interesting time to be a producer in this business. As we wrap up, Dan, are there any key takeaways that you want to make sure the audience knows?

D: Well, I would say the only thing that we maybe didn’t touch on that I think you also want to pay attention to is it’s a little bit more of a challenging entry point because it requires you to have produced show, but acquisitions are not off the table. And particularly what I’m starting to see with National Geographic on the linear side, they actually look like they’re making a concerted effort to increase the volume of acquisitions on the linear network. And in fact, I think I counted as many as eight properties, usually anywhere between four and eight parts that are very nice current acquisitions. Most of them seem to be coming out of the UK, but there may be opportunities there for some of the folks that are in our listening audience.

L: That’s really good to know. It’s almost as the market gets more fragmented, there are new opportunities that come up. They might not be the same opportunities for producers, but they’re new. And I think if you can be strategic and creative about how you approach any of these pitches, it opens a lot of doors, especially with these big non-fiction brands that we know and we love.

I just want to thank everybody for joining us. Before we sign off, just a reminder you can read more about us and Documentary Business and watch more of the webinars that track key trends on Peter Hamilton’s Documentary Business newsletter. Dan, thank you so much. What a pleasure. This has been so much fun.


I posted up the transcript in two steps:

  • Intro and Nat Geo / Disney+
  • Discovery Networks / Max and A+E Networks (above)

More from Dan & Liz

More Webinars from MIPDOC & MIPTV 2024


Liz Levenson is an international television executive who works with global platforms, producers, and distributors to develop and distribute top-quality content around the world. She is the co-founder of Cactus Tree Entertainment and EP of true crime series My Name is Reeva and documentaries The Ripple Effect and The Race for the Cure. Liz has shared her experience on panels and at conferences around the globe, including MIPTV, MIPCOM, Realscreen, NATPE and more. Prior to co-founding Cactus Tree Entertainment, Liz was the Vice President of Sales and Acquisitions at GRB Studios, and has held senior level positions at Pilgrim Studios, RiveGauche Television, and CABLEready. Liz is heading to NATPE Budapest and will share her Takeaways soon after.

Dan Salerno’s career spans multiple platforms across the global television business. He has been a key member of the leadership team for established and emerging networks, with an emphasis on strategic planning and content development. Most recently National Geographic’s Head of Programming, focusing on programming, development, and strategy, Dan’s career also includes BBC, Gospel, Fuse, and the original launch team at Discovery and its sister channels.

Read about Peter Hamilton and Documentary Business here.