Discovery Channel executive looking for locally produced programmes

Having recently expanded its regional portfolio with the Middle East launch of TLC, could Discovery’s next step be to dramatically increase local production?
James Gibbons, the senior vice president for central and eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Discovery Networks. Jeffrey Biteng / The National
James Gibbons, the senior vice president for central and eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Discovery Networks. Jeffrey Biteng / The National

It’s already been a great year for new TV channels in the Middle East – OSN kept MMA fans’ pulses racing with the launch of Fight Network HD, the Sundance Channel arrived to bring more cerebral film offerings to the region’s cinephiles and, most recently, Discovery Networks premièred TLC in the region, featuring the likes of Cake Boss’s Buddy Valastro and the chat show queen Oprah Winfrey.

We caught up with James Gibbons, Discovery’s senior vice president for central and eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, while he was on a recent visit to the region, to find out about the thinking behind the new channel’s Middle East launch.

“The Discovery Channel has been well-established in the region for a few years now,” Gibbons explains. “It’s our flagship network here, but we do concede that it has quite a male demographic skew. I think TLC will fill the role of our flagship network for female viewers, as it has in the US and other markets. I think we now have very strong male and female channels in the Middle East.”

One of the biggest faces used to launch, publicise and populate the channel is the American chat show queen Oprah Winfrey. With Winfrey already having her own Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) under the Discovery umbrella, is the much-loved face of US chat perhaps saturating the market a little?

“In the United States we do have OWN and Oprah has transitioned from being a well-known TV face to running her own network very well. Looking at the rest of the world, though, it makes more sense to incubate brands before we throw them on the stage.

“We discussed this with Oprah and concluded it was better for her to join forces with TLC and launch a single channel globally rather than offer both. There’s a lot of overlap – at the heart of the TLC brand is a sense of aspiration and personal fulfilment that women want in their lives and Oprah’s content fits very well into that. We think it makes TLC stronger and is a great platform for OWN’s content, too.”

The new channel may ensure that Middle East audiences are well- served for American chat and reality shows, but what about local content, not just on TLC, but on Discovery and across the network’s channels in the region?

“We would love to create original content from the region,” says Gibbons. “There are some tremendous stories here that would be interesting not only to the local audience but potentially audiences all around the world. We do recognise that we need to build direct relationships with audiences and that requires content closer to home.”

He continues: “We are looking to develop streams of original content, though I can’t share too much detail, but there’s a phenomenal engineering and infrastructure story right across the region. The majority of infrastructure development in the world right now is happening in the Middle East and our viewers are fascinated by cities, stadiums, hospitals and transport systems that are built. That’s a story we’d love to tell.

“I do admit that currently we don’t have as much local production in this market as in other markets, and I definitely would expect a shift in that direction in future. Last year we split off the Middle East Discovery Channel to be region specific. It was previously one channel across the Middle East and Africa. We are working very closely with our partners at OSN on what works in this region.”

With OSN’s own dramatic recent increase in in-house or locally commissioned productions, thanks in large part to the success of its Yahala! Channel, it seems there could also be a handy production partner waiting in the wings should Discovery decide to ramp up its local shows, but again Gibbons isn’t giving too much away.

“We talk to OSN about everything. We discuss content time slots, we have focus groups, look at their audience data. We’re currently looking at topics that will interest audiences, then when we produce those shows we’ll probably use the same processes as we do on other international productions, using specialists in those kinds of shows, probably with professionals coming in from abroad alongside some local teams.”

Of course, another way for a global media giant to get hold of local content is to simply buy an existing local channel or production house, as Discovery did last year with the Dubai-based food channel Fatafeat.

“Precisely,” says Gibbons. “Fatafeat is all about local content production for a regional channel. They did a great job building that brand and we believe by taking it into the Discovery fold we can take it to the next level.

“We do this all around the world. Even with very international brands such as Discovery Channel, there’s always a measure of localisation, whether through language customisation or original content.”

cnewbould@thenational.ae

Published: May 19, 2014 04:00 AM

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