Discovery Channel Demonstrates Adaptability in the Face of COVID-19

Josh Gates

With people hunkered down at home over the past two months, audiences have been hungrier than ever for news and entertainment. As a result, cable TV networks have had the responsibility of adapting their programming lineups and creating new content in light of recent events. From producing on the fly to having talent and staff working from their homes, it is an extraordinary feat to keep viewers informed, up to date, and entertained as the pandemic surges on. We recently caught up with Discovery Channel Senior Vice President of Programming, Donna D'Alessandro, to find out how the network has handled the challenges brought on by COVID-19 and continued to serve its audiences in innovative ways.

How has Discovery shifted its programming direction during the pandemic?

The first thing we did immediately was we didn't take our foot off the gas, in fact we leaned in further. We knew that people would be home and looking for escapement and entertainment. We knew we had to look at our inventory, and see what we had and what we needed more of. When you're living through these unprecedented times, the biggest thing you need to do is address it. One of the things we did immediately was that within a week of lockdown, we had many of our talent at home on their phones create a message to our viewers that conveyed, 'We're all in this together,' and it played throughout our schedule. We wanted our audience to know that we weren't pretending that it was business as usual. We wanted them to know that we are in it for the long haul with them. 

We also wanted our programming to reflect that things have changed. We have the power of being an unscripted factual network, in that we don't have to rely on scripted. So we have multiple specials coming out where our talent are still doing their shows, but not as 'business as usual,' –instead they show how they are handling and operating during the pandemic.

Can you share a couple of examples of how some of your programming has addressed COVID? 

We started a small talk show with Josh Gates [from the Discovery series Expedition Unknown] as a 10-minute piece on Wednesday nights [in which the host shows viewers unseen footage of his travels around the world, but from the safety of his home during quarantine], and it did so well that we moved it to primetime. He addressed various topics on what we were airing that night, and [the talk show] did so well that we expanded it to a full hour. It is really holding its own, and it was created because of COVID. We are trying to keep nimble and make sure that we are providing our audiences with a form of entertainment that is acknowledging what is going on. 

Then in our show, Moonshiners, Tim who has been on the show since its inception—went from making illegal moonshine to legal moonshine. Well the story in real life is about how he has converted his [distillery] to make hand sanitizer. It's about doing social good but it’s also about showing how he has adapted to change and what he's doing during this time. It's a big deal to show that everybody is changing their lives and trying to address the pandemic through using their own skills and in the best way they know how to.  

Have you seen changes in how your viewers are consuming programming during this time? 

We have seen an increase across the board in total day. People are watching whenever, wherever. We're seeing that there is programming shifting. There are 50 things they can watch at one time. But particularly on the Discovery, Animal Planet, and Science Channel platforms, we've leaned into a little bit of nostalgia, what we call comfort programming in that viewers may recognize the talent and shows they haven't seen in awhile. We put Cash Cab on. We brought back older episodes of Gold Rush or Deadliest Catch, Too Cute! on Animal Planet, MythBusters on Science Channel. People stop and they need a moment of escapement. People are really happy with seeing stuff that they recognize. 

Can you share an example of the challenges of producing a show during this time? 

I'll tip my hat to Animal Planet on this. Bindi Irwin was supposed to get married in early April. But Australia was going into lockdown, so they ended up moving up the wedding [to late March], and turned it into a small, personal ceremony at Australia Zoo [where the Irwins live as a family].  We got word within 48 hours that they were going to move up the wedding, and we were already planning to showcase this wedding as a special on air at a later date. But we were able to very quickly get out there, film it, and really highlight the moment and the meaning of why they were getting married, and the timeliness of it all. We addressed the wedding through multiple angles with the background of COVID—from the emotion of a wedding to the emotion of 'this wasn't what they planned but they were moving with it,' and we were able to get it on air within two weeks. We were able to take that moment and tell that story in a proper way, and it was the highest rated telecast of anything on air in two years for Animal Planet. We saw, one, how much our audience loves the Irwins (that is a whole other story!), but two, how we are making sure that the best thing to do as a network is to be factual and to show people what is actually going on in our talents’ lives. 

In your view, how can television be effective during times like these, and why it is such an important element in our culture?

I think more than anything, this is the power of linear strategy television that influences whatever platform it is on because we look at the viewer not as a mass population but as who they are and what they expect from the brand. We are able to be extraordinarily nimble to make sure we are constantly fine tuning and listening to the cultural changes and the shifts that are going on in the world to provide them with what they want. I applaud everybody on my side of the fence across the cable landscape who is doing that on a day-to-day basis.  

Header photo courtesy of Discovery Channel: Josh Gates Tonight