BBC, Discovery to build “Marvel library” of factual content with SVOD

Discovery boss David Zaslav has likened the business’s whopping nine-figure deal for BBC content to an attempt to build a “Marvel library” for factual content.

“Not only do we have the entire library, but now we have spin-offs and new series coming out of those brands that will be able to delight audiences all over the world. For us, it’s a great opportunity to differentiate [our offering],” said the exec, speaking to CNBC after Discovery and the BBC confirmed plans for a natural history-focused global SVOD service.

Set to roll out in 2020, the Discovery-led platform will be powered by the BBC’s natural history content – plans that were first reported in February. The 10-year content deal, worth £300m ($393m), is effective in all territories outside the UK, Ireland and Greater China, and will make Discovery the exclusive global home of BBC landmark natural history programmes in SVOD, including Planet EarthBlue Planet and Life.

The BBC and Discovery have also agreed to invest in content together and hope to attract new talent to their joint fund for content creation.

“It’s going to be expensive, but it’s the business that we’re in,” said Zaslav of the new venture, hinting that a monthly subscription for the SVOD will cost around $5 per month.

As for whether the move may be considered defensive in light of Netflix’s first major natural history offering, Our Planet, launching later this week, Zaslav was quick to call the SVOD an “offensive” play due to the BBC and Discovery’s reputation in the natural history space, and adding that “a lot of the content we’re getting is coming off Netflix now and it won’t be going back on [that service] in the time with us”.

In some ways, the SVOD’s most direct competition will be Disney+, which includes the Nat Geo catalogue and the Courteney Monroe-run brand’s various premium offerings, which includes high-end docs such as Jane and One Strange Rock. Both Discovery and Nat Geo aggressively entered the premium race for content around the same time in 2015, although the latter has had markedly more success in the feature doc and scripted arenas.

“The Disney and HBO brands stand for entertainment – they’re about scripted series or movies. Maybe on the edges they’ll do a doc about food or nature, but [natural history] is core to what we do,” said Zaslav.

“If you have Netflix and HBO, you’re going to want to see the greatest natural history on Earth. So we see ourselves as being very clear and differentiated.”

Speaking on a conference call earlier in the day, Zaslav said the SVOD pact originated from a dinner meeting between him and BBC director general Tony Hall last year. He said the duo’s “joint mission” would make the SVOD service “so powerful”, and that Discovery was reigniting its relationship with the BBC “with a bang”.

The Discovery boss added that a co-development deal with BBC Studios meant more than a convergence of libraries. “Our ambition is to build on the greatest natural history production in the world” from the BBC and attract more talent and blue-chip producers. “We will look to bring other partners in who want to work with us,” he added.

Zaslav said the service will span an array of documentary genres, making Discovery the home of BBC natural history and science catalogues. “These are titles that are loved…in every country in the world.” The service will also develop spin-offs and additional series based on the catalogue, including series produced by the BBC, such as Serengeti from Simon Fuller.

Zaslav said the service will also include content from Discovery’s “vast vault” of content, and will be complemented by additional material, such as podcasts, as well as opportunities to interact with content creators.

“Natural history is coming back to our core DNA,” he said. “This is a very important piece of our overall strategy.”

Elsewhere, BBC director general Tony Hall hailed the corporation’s tie-up with Discovery Communications as “absolutely mission critical”.

Speaking on a conference call on Monday (1 April), Hall said he was excited to “reignite our relations with Discovery and David Zaslav” and that the businesses’ new SVOD service will not only enable viewers to see BBC natural history content across the globe, but came at a critical juncture for environmental awareness.

“This is the biggest content deal the BBC has ever done – £300m ($393m) over 10 years. It is important to us financially but also creatively,” said Hall.

UKTV channels break-up

Hall said that the BBC’s takeover of UKTV channels reflected the need to secure “future returns for licence fee payers”. He said that the creation of UKTV channels combining some commissions with a lot of BBC library content – representing half the UKTV schedule – brought in money that could be spent on creating more BBC content.

The UKTV name will be kept and the BBC is to continue to support investment in original content for the channels.

He also said that BBC Studios’ control of the channels will help open up space for the BBC to realise its ambition to extend the iPlayer window for certain content, and also help to provide content for its proposed SVOD JV with ITV, BritBox, whose ambitions were last week defended by ITV boss Carolyn McCall.

Zaslav said the UKTV agreement reflected a bid to clarify how the IP was split and the future direction of the channels. He said the agreement also means that Discovery becomes a ‘top five’ free broadcaster in the UK.