With competitors closing in on all sides, mid-sized media companies are in a tight spot. Cord-cutting services like Netflix are undermining business from their traditional pay-TV partners. At the same time, big competitors like AT&T and Disney, are making multi-billion-dollar investments in new content. Media companies like Discovery Communications, Univision Communications and AMC Networks hope that specialization will let them survive by carving out unique territories in the entertainment landscape.
Discovery Communications has doubled-down on fact-based programming over the past year. In early 2018, its acquisition of Scripps Networks Interactive added popular lifestyle channels. Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav called the combination “a new global leader in real life entertainment.”
In addition to Discovery and its spin-off channels, the company’s documentary channels include Animal Planet, Science Channel, American Heroes, and Motor Trend. Travel Channel, Food Network, HGTV and the Oprah Winfrey Network anchor Discovery’s roster of lifestyle channels. What unites the various channels is a focus on fact-based content.
“While everyone else is focused on big and expensive movies and scripted series,” Zaslav told investors recently, “we have a different approach…. We are powering people’s passions in genres that are essential to their lives.”
Discovery has embraced the streaming industry, signing up more streaming services, and expanding the number of channels existing partners stream. “We now have the most widely distributed cable network group across all key OTT players,” Zaslav told investors.
Building on its “enthusiast superfan” focus, Discovery Communications recently signed a deal with the BBC that will anchor Discovery’s upcoming streaming video service. The two companies agreed to make Discovery “the exclusive global home of BBC landmark natural history” content for streaming on demand. The library of content includes current nature documentary franchises like Blue Planet as well as the BBC’s archive of fact-based content. Combined with Discovery’s own library, the new streaming service will be, in Zaslav’s words, “the definitive natural history and factual streaming platform in the world.”
These and other changes at Discovery Communications form “a completely different strategy than most of our peers are pursuing,” Zaslav said. “We are playing at a different sandbox than anybody else.”
For the past 60 years, Univision has built a strong business centered on America’s Spanish-speaking communities. In addition to the flagship Univision and UniMás broadcast channels, the company distributes content through Galavisión, sports channel TUDN, and several other cable channels.
However, the company strayed from its historical strengths in 2016 with the creation of Fusion Media Group and the purchase of Gawker Media. Univision’s CEO at the time, Randy Falco, said that the Fusion move was designed to reach “a young, diverse audience” beyond its core market. Likewise, content chief Isaac Lee explained, the Gawker acquisition would bring content to “exceed the demands of the young, cross-cultural influencers we serve.”
Univision reversed course in 2018 with the replacement of Falco by Vincent Sadusky, an industry veteran and former CFO of Telemundo. Rather than broadening Univision’s scope, Sadusky decided to renew Univision’s focus on the company’s core strengths of live and local TV.
Univision has a network of 120 local TV and radio stations as well as agreements to carry soccer matches from leagues around the world. In the first quarter of 2019, half of the people watching soccer in the United States did so through Univision channels. The company’s news operation is the go-to source for news among Hispanic Americans.
Speaking on Univision’s latest quarterly investor call, Sadusky outlined the way traditional TV lies at the core of a rejuvenated Univision. “We have prioritized live soccer and live news, diversified our entertainment content, enhanced our local news programming and expanded our Spanish-language digital offerings.”
Another element helping Univision carve a unique space in the market is a change in its approach to sourcing entertainment content. The Mexican media company Televisa has always produced most of the scripted content Univision airs. That relationship is continuing as Televisa ups its game with higher-quality dramas and telenovelas. But Univision is not as dependent on Televisa as it once was. When the tastes of America’s Hispanic population differ, Univision is now more willing to develop its own content.
By “super-serving” U.S. Hispanics and strengthening live and local broadcasts, Univision hopes to fend off the competitive threat from NBCUniversal’s Telemundo and the broader cord-cutting trend.
AMC Networks only has five TV channels but has still carved a distinctive place in the media industry. “Our POV has been, as a core principle, to focus on excellent content,” AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan told Variety.
The flagship channel AMC produced several shows with recurring TV guide slots, including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and the ever-expanding universe of The Walking Dead. BBC America showcases original content of its own in addition to the BBC’s British entertainment and documentaries. IFC and Sundance TV broadcast independent film productions that rarely get air on more mainstream channels. And WEtv offers up lifestyle and entertainment programming designed to appeal to female audiences.
“We always thought it was wise that we don’t have dozens of networks,” AMC’s Chief Operating Officer Ed Carroll told Indiewire. “So it’s been important to us that each of those networks has a distinctive programming mandate and a brand filter.”
To support the content-based approach, AMC recently consolidated the leadership of its four entertainment channels AMC, BBC America, Sundance TV and IFC. Their new chief, Sarah Barnett, previously ran BBC America and Sundance TV. In the announcement, Carroll praised Barnett’s work at both channels where she created shows like the award-winning Killing Eve that “have redefined each brand.”
AMC Networks has extended its content strategy into the streaming world, but not by cramming all of its content into a single service. “We think we’ve met with success inhabiting genre specific offerings with our four highly targeted [direct-to-consumer] services,” Sapan said on the earnings call. Sundance Now and the Urban Movie Channel serve film buffs while Shudder and Acorn TV target fans of horror and British TV respectively.
AMC Network hopes that focusing on original content they can distribute globally will shelter them from the ever-more-competitive TV marketplace.