The Kardashians may be going off the air, but reality television is finally getting some respect — and so is its king, Discovery Inc.
No, Discovery isn’t home to the pop-culture touchstone that was “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the first show people probably think of when they hear “reality TV.” It airs on NBC’s E! network, and the family is calling it quits next year. But Discovery — the parent company of HGTV, Food Network, TLC and more — is the rightful ruler of the unscripted TV world.
Discovery’s slew of wildly addictive programs have spawned their own niche reality stars. There’s home-renovation pros Chip and Joanna Gaines from “Fixer Upper,” chef Guy Fieri from “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” the Alaskan king crab fishermen on “Deadliest Catch” and even “Colty” (Colt Johnson), a hapless lover on “90 Day Fiance.” Posters of Discovery’s stars — people plucked from ordinary life who have gained massive followings, whether for their likability or compulsive drama — line the walls of the company’s corporate offices like a Hall of Fame dedicated to what many consider the lowest rung of television art.
For years, Discovery CEO David Zaslav has been hammering Wall Street with the same message about what he sees as the company’s unique competitive advantages. These include owning all of its content outright; the low-cost, low-maintenance, quick-to-ship nature of its productions; and its control of some of the most popular networks among women. Given all this, Discovery should be earning more advertiser dollars, he says. Wall Street has mostly yawned in response — until, maybe, now.
As Hollywood joined most of the rest of the U.S. economy in shutting down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the arrival of new movies and scripted series slowed to a trickle. The cable-TV bundle’s beloved live sports stopped altogether. Even now, because filming safely on production sets remains a challenge, cable networks are leaning more heavily on reruns this fall, while fresh-out-of-the-gate streaming apps are quickly turning stale without new content to feature. Meanwhile, daytime soap operas and reality shows — including those on Discovery’s networks — have kept TV going.
Reality TV especially is gaining deeper appreciation among viewers, and not just because it feels as if there’s nothing else to watch. Netflix Inc. has started to explore the space, with successes such as “The Circle,” “Love Is Blind,” “Too Hot to Handle” and “Selling Sunset” validating the genre. But few programs compare to the downright obsession millions of viewers have with TLC’s “90 Day Fiance,” which follows the lives of Americans engaged to foreigners who have arrived on three-month K-1 visas. There have also been popular spinoffs and sister programs, such as “90 Day Fiance: The Other Way,” in which Americans move abroad to countries such as Ecuador and Ethiopia to marry their significant others. “On Sunday and Monday, it’s the No. 1 show on television,” Zaslav told investors at a conference this month. “For us, that’s like our NFL.” At the height of the pandemic, some “90 Day” cast members even kept filming themselves. TLC’s prime time ratings are up 20% for the current season, averaging 1.37 million viewers, according to Nielsen data.
To some, “90 Day” is trash TV. To many others, it’s the perfect way to unwind at the start of a workweek — a quality that’s arguably missing from new on-demand video apps. Zaslav, as it turns out, wasn’t a broken a record; he was right. Discovery’s content broadly is proving its value amid both the streaming wars and the Covid-19 crisis. It’s the kind you can easily watch while scrolling social media or cooking dinner. Programs such as “90 Day” and those on other Discovery-owned networks are also highly conducive to “social viewing.” It’s a term that encompasses new trends emerging in TV land, as friends and families virtually watching together or share what they’re watching with one another, and new social-media communities spring up around shows and characters. As I’ve said before and wrote earlier this week, the convergence of social media and streaming video is the future of entertainment, as is advertising, whether consumers like it or not.
Discovery, which already has an offering in Europe called Dplay, has been quietly working on a direct-to-consumer streaming product for fans of its U.S. networks. It’s a tricky proposition in an already crowded market that includes Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Peacock and CBS All Access (which is rebranding as Paramount+). A Discovery app bundled with any one of those would be compelling to a lot of people. Recall, it wasn’t all that long ago that Walt Disney Co. and Comcast Corp. competed for Fox’s assets. And unlike the hassle some of those services went through in launching streaming products, Discovery doesn’t have any of its content tangled up in licensing deals.
“Disney+ together with all the stuff from Discovery — that makes a hell of a bundle,” Zaslav said at the conference. Or with HBO, or Netflix, he added. Keeping up with consumers means embracing reality TV for the long run. Who will pounce?
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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