Tom Keaveny is a television man through and through. The Birmingham native began in local television in the UK before embarking on a 10-year career with Discovery Networks that has taken him to Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He moved to Asia four years ago as executive vice president and managing director for the Asia Pacific region. Keaveny spoke to CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW about Discovery Channel’s new website launched in partnership with Chinese search engine Baidu.
Q: To what extent is the new baidu.discovery.com website simply the Discovery Channel television programming in an online format?
A: The deal we’ve just done in China is in some ways similar to what we did last year with [the magazine] Reader’s Digest when we began publishing the Discovery Channel Magazine in the Asia Pacific region. This follows our philosophy of being not just a television company, but a content company. The new partnership with Baidu is absolutely not Discovery TV. This is a website like any other website. It’s predominantly text based, there will be a degree of interactivity to it, and a small amount of short-form video, just as we have on all our other web properties around the world. All the content has already run on our programming blocks in China and has already been approved by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT). This isn’t a backdoor into China. It’s about providing an online experience with richer, deeper access to the stories that we show.
Q: So people won’t be able to see full-length Discovery Channel shows online at baidu.discovery.com?
A: That definitively, unequivocally, is not going to happen. I’ll give you a classic example. Take "Shark Week" [a week-long series of programming dedicated to sharks]. We’re not showing videos of Shark Week programming online. If you go online you can get information about the sharks, about predators, their habitat, what they do, what their breeding cycles are. That’s really what this is for. We’re not trying to turn a magazine into a TV channel, we’re not trying to turn the internet into a TV channel, or turn a TV channel into a magazine. We want to let each medium do what it is best at, and use that as a way to focus our strategy. What the website is going to provide is touch points.
Q: Beyond the new website, what is the extent of your China operations?
A: We’ve got a channel that is available in foreign compounds and hotels. We also do a lot of work with organizations like the China Intercontinental Communications Center to get stories about China shown around the world. A perfect example was during the Olympics. We had a number of programs that featured very heavily in Discovery’s core genres. There were episodes featuring the Bird’s Nest stadium and Beijing International Airport as part of our Man Made Marvels engineering series, "Beijing Makeover," and also "Ultimate Olympics." Working with the Chinese authorities, we were able to get great access to stories that resonate around the world. We also provide programming blocks on some cable channels in China, about an hour a day of Discovery content. The performance of these shows is increasing. We’ve seen a 10% uplift this year in reach and 11% ratings growth in the key cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Then there is are things like "First-Time Filmmakers," an initiative in which we use Discovery personnel and skills and set up competitions for people to make documentaries in China.
Q: On the television side, what Discovery Channel content is most popular in China?
A: Engineering is one of the genres that works best as China is one of the engineering capitals of the world. Science obviously works too. I think this typifies the Asian thirst for knowledge and education. So we’re finding that science, wildlife and engineering really resonate in Asian markets.
Q: Is the new Baidu partnership in part a bid to break into China’s educational market?
A: This will be used exactly as the web is used everywhere. It’s all about the accessibility of exploration and engineering and adventure and science, and making that available not just on certain programming blocks but to everyone with an internet connection. Discovery has a unit called Discovery Education where they operate with schools in the US. I don’t think that’s something we’re in the position of rolling out yet in the Asia Pacific region. To be candid, that’s not the purpose of this venture in China.
Q: I suppose the question behind that is what is the target demographic for Discovery in China?
A: Our demographic in Asia is affluent, mostly men, aged 25-54, and there’s a degree of congruency in China. That said, we’ve got other networks – like Discovery Travel & Living, which has more of a female bias, while Animal Planet has a very broad appeal. Of course, online there might be a slightly younger demographic coming to bear.
Q: How do you position yourself versus competition such as National Geographic in a market that may not be as familiar with Discovery?
A: You have to look at your audience performance, how you cope with competition, what are your audiences doing. On the whole, across our region we are by far the largest factual entertainment player. Our audience in Asia is up 42% year-on-year this quarter due to a flight to quality and the fact we own most of our own content. We’ve got global plays on shows such as Deadliest Catch or Man vs. Wild or Mythbusters – you can’t find these shows anywhere else, and they work because of their high quality. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but what we’ve found is that with increasing competition our ratings have also increased. We’ve got seven channels in the Asia Pacific region. People thought we were going to cannibalize our audiences, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our audience across all of those channels is increasing.
Q: How does China fit into Discovery’s Asia Pacific footprint?
A: China is important to us both today and tomorrow and in the future. We don’t have a short-term, opportunistic approach to the market. Like in every other market in the world, we respect all the local legislation.
Q: By this you’re referring to China’s media controls?
A: Absolutely, but there are media controls in every market. There are media controls in the UK, Singapore, India, and even in the US. I’ve worked in a number of different markets around the world. China has got its own opportunities and challenges. But China is a market where you can get HD, you can get digital, you can get online and broadband. In terms of infrastructure, the quality of television, it’s amazing; and in terms of the sheer scale of population it’s a huge differentiator. We operate within that as we do in every market.