Discovery buying Scripps – what does it mean?

The big news today is Discovery buying Scripps. You’ve probably heard of these two broadcasting giants but weren’t really sure what they had to do with your life. They operate some of the most successful cable channels and have some of the most popular brands on television, but what can they do together? First let’s look at what they’ve done separately. Discovery owns and operates all these channels:

  • Discovery Channel
  • TLC
  • Animal Planet
  • Investigation Discovery
  • OWN
  • Velocity
  • Science Channel
  • Discovery Family
  • American Heroes Channel
  • Destination America
  • Discovery Life
  • Discovery en Español
  • Discovery Familia

Scripps owns and operates:

  • HGTV
  • Food Network
  • DIY
  • Cooking Channel
  • Travel Channel
  • Great American Country

If you watch TV, there is an excellent chance you’ve watched one of those channels. A lot. Whether it’s Mythbusters or Battlebots, Guy Fieri or House Hunters, there’s something there for a really wide group of people.

There’s also a lot of overlap. Several of the Discovery Networks show reruns of other Discovery shows, and while an expert may be able to tell the difference between a DIY show and an HGTV show, for most of us they’re really the same brand.

Consolidating all of these powerhouse brands into one group means a greater chance of success for all of them. The one thing that nearly every channel in both those lists has in common is a rapidly aging customer base. House Hunters may show young people looking for a home, but it’s baby boomers and Gen-Xers who are watching. Discovery and Scripps are the old men in the cable industry, and they haven’t done a good job of attracting younger viewers. Their average viewership is rapidly heading toward the point where they’re out of the vaunted “18-49” demographic.

Millennials look at television differently — they watch shows not networks. They aren’t loyal to a brand the way their parents are. So, they’re unlikely to pop on HGTV and just stare for a few hours like earlier generations. They’re also unlikely to bingewatch Mythbusters or How It’s Made and those two shows seem to be a big part of the Discovery ecosystem.

Make no mistake, Discovery and Scripps are two drunks walking down the same hallway and they have both finally found someone to lean on. This sort of “basic cable” channel is headed for extinction without programs that attract hype and younger viewers. Unlike AMC, HBO, and FX, neither Discovery, HGTV, nor any of their spinoff channels ever attract the level of buzz that makes people sit up and notice them. In fact their live-TV-focused cocktail of frequent reruns and self-promoting commercials is pretty much every millennial’s idea of what’s wrong with TV today.

Conventional wisdom — and every other news story you’ll read today — will tell you that this deal will let Discovery/Scripps (or whatever they’re called after their merger) dominate. Those stories are wrong. This isn’t about domination. A merger of these two giants in 2005 would have been about domination. Now it’s about surviving. Together, the two companies will have enough assets to continue producing waiting-room-friendly drivel and also try to deliver on the kind of visual entertainment people will be looking for in the next decade.

I have said it before and I will say it again: my forecast is that in the coming years, up to 75% of channels will disappear and you won’t care. The channels that specialize in reruns and duplicates designed for different time zones will just… go away. I suspect we’ll see an end to the duplication of Discovery Channel Content, the merging of HGTV and DIY, that sort of thing. Right now it’s good for content providers to have multiple networks since they get paid for every one of them. Pay TV companies (and regular folks) are wise to this hustle, though, and I think we’ll see AT&T, DISH, Comcast, all those folks, just saying that they’ll take one HBO channel thank you very much, and that’s all. Same with Discovery and Scripps.

I hate to say it this way but no one ever accused these content providers of being smart. I’m afraid they’ll realize too late that they’re already obsolete, but as long as they’re still pulling in cash from contracts negotiated three years ago they’re going to stay dumb and happy until it’s far too late to do anything.

Merging Discovery and Scripps is a good thing. It’s a smart thing. What they do now… that’s the real question.