Discovery Documentaries: SVP Howard Swartz reveals “The docs we’re looking for!”

Howard Swartz is the Senior Vice President Docs and Specials, Factual Networks & Streaming, for Discovery.

For Sunny Side of the Doc‘s Meet the Executive session, he joined Peter Hamilton to share Discovery’s documentary strategy and key buckets.

Following are session highlights, including clips of several projects that reveal Howard’s priorities.

MISSION & STRATEGY

What is the consistent documentary thread that runs through your multi-channels and now streamer, Discovery+?

  • Discovery is about satisfying curiosity through great characters and with great storytelling that inspires, engages and most importantly, it entertains
  • The main goal is to be relevant on all platforms
  • Discovery+ is a huge part of that mission
  • It is the definitive nonfiction, real life streaming service that aggregates all Discovery’s brands…from Factual to Lifestyle

EDITORIAL

Legacy Content

What are the genres that work for the old “legacy channels” model, and that will continue to be relevant in the new model?

  • The legacy genres of Natural History, Limited Series, Science, Adventure, Shark Week, etc. will remain
  • Currently looking at the legacy genres for docs and specials
  • Natural History remains a heavyweight, which includes Shark Week
  • We’re expanding into new genres as well:
    • Pop Culture series and feature documentaries which are buzzy, entertainment first docs that have the potential to create a cultural moment
    • Impact Documentaries is another key area… and these are docs that are crafted to spotlight issues, to inspire or drive change and have that urgency and need to be told now

Examples of Legacy Programs

  • Natural History: Meet the Meerkats
  • Fun way of investigating extraordinary animals

Natural History

  • Natural History is one of the hallmarks of the Discovery brand
  • Discovery has struggled with the genre over the past several years, but we have enjoyed a resurgence recently
    • Serengeti did very well: It was the highest rated Natural History program in 6 or 7 years
    • The series framed the animals as more relatable, and as a result viewers became more invested in the storytelling

Buckets

  • It’s important to employ many different types of Natural History storytelling to bring people in:
  • There’s the Awe and Wonder bucket, which are beautiful and surprising and show behaviors and creatures we’ve never seen.
    • Perfect Planet led by Sir David Attenborough is a great example
  • The Dramatic bucket has more of a soap opera feel and leans into character-driven storytelling
  • The Conservation bucket shines a light on urgent and timely issues
    • It tends to be more difficult to find an audience, but celebrity attachment helps a lot
    • We recently signed a deal with Ellen DeGeneres, in which she will be exclusive to Discovery in the Natural History space
  • The Humor bucket adds lightness and fun to the genre

Shark Week: Shark Lockdown!

What’s New?

What’s the newest of the new in your commissioning pipeline?

  • Discovery is expanding into new genres and opening up the aperture
  • Stories will skew a little younger
  • They will plug into pop culture and topics that are in the zeitgeist
  • We also launched a new strand, Undiscovered
    • It’s more contemporary
    • Each documentary is a singular, narrative story with real chance for a payoff

Example of Undiscovered

  • Attack of the Murder Hornets
  • The film documents the search for the first murder hornet nest in the U.S. with the goal to eradicate them before the “slaughter season” when they will kill an entire bee colony in a matter of minutes
  • The filmmaker came from the horror world, and leans into the horror genre to give the story a Stranger Things vibe

Looking for…and Not!

Is there a formula for the docs that you are looking for?

  • Innovative filmmakers tackling stories that have a big impact and are topical
  • As I mentioned earlier, Impact Docs that are crafted to spotlight issues and that urgently want to drive actual change
  • Questions we ask: Is there on-screen talent?  Is it the work of a big filmmaker?

What are you not looking for in the documentary category?

  • Genres that Discovery is NOT looking for are Politics, Music, Art, Sports, and Military because these topics do not align with our core brands.  But a good story is a good story so we are always happy to hear how content creators feel something could fit into our world

Example of “Big Swings”

  • We’re looking at a lot feature docs…as original commissions, as co-pros and as acquisitions.
  • A Big Swings in the Doc World is Lily Topples the World
  • It’s a unique portrait of an artists, how passion and artistry can make dreams come true

Budgets

I’ve seen budgets for big swings in the documentary world that are more than $10 million.  What are your thoughts on budgets?

  • There isn’t a “one size fits all” budget solution
  • Different projects have different value propositions
  • The doc space is very competitive: Discovery+ wants to step up and compete on the big projects

Will you rely on award winning directors and creators?

  • Best-in-Class filmmakers bring legitimacy in the doc space: they give real and perceived value, and give a leg up in the awards realm and for attracting critical acclaim
  • Our preference for established filmmakers can make it harder for up-and-coming talent to get on Discovery’s radar, but by no means do we exclusively work with big name talent
  • We will launch awards campaigns following theatrical releases for qualified projects
  • Not every project will get that treatment, but it is part of the Discovery documentary arsenal
  • Discovery does support the vision of the filmmaker

What is an example of a Discovery awards campaign?

  • Apocalypse ’45, Erik Nelson’s story of the grueling Pacific War shows the direction that we will take
  • (Read more in my detailed Apocalypse ’45 Case Study)

Are you commissioning True Crime?

  • The genre is very popular on Discovery+ and across the streaming universe
  • It sits outside of the factual brand
  • Crime tends to skew more female, and sits in the Lifestyle category.
  • But we’re all one content team so great projects will always find their way to the right team

Do you sign the celebrities yourself or do you sign with producers who are attached to celebrities?

  • Both, but coming in with talent already attached is very helpful
  • It’s tough when you get a pitch with a celebrity attached but who hasn’t been approached
  • The talent needs to be an organic, natural attachment to the story

What is the ratio between acquisitions, coproductions, and commissions?

  • We’re open to all models, and we work on a case-by-case basis

How open are you to work with non-US hosts and producers?  Would you consider a non-English speaking host?

  • It makes sense to pitch your regional teams, but in general, we are open to global partners and international deals

Do Sports documentaries with an impact potential raise your interest?

  • Yes in principle, but we would likely not be as open to is a follow doc or a sports personality profile
  • If it was an investigative doc and drove change and impact, we would be interested, especially if it relates back to a core Discovery genre

Is it worth it to pitch human history, marine and archaeology for instance?

  • Yes, those are so core to our brand and those genres work really well for the Science channel team
  • And also potentially good the the Undiscovered strand

Are you still interested in pets and vet shows?

  • They’re still a priority for the Animal Planet team

You mentioned competition and comedy, are there some examples?  Are you open for experimenting on a really new series with strong Science storytelling?

  • There are competition shows in the pipeline that fall into this bucket.  The Series team is really leading the charge in this space and have some really innovative projects cooking

What is your target audience?

  • In the Natural History space, its family viewing.  But generally speaking, our target is everyone!
  • We’re trying to skew young on Discovery+, but not specifically targeting kids

What kind of Science content are you looking for: pop or hard Science?

  • Yes to both!  Hard science is tougher, but it all depends on the storytelling.  Pop science is more accessible and tends to be a better approach
  • Archaeology of Ancient Egypt is a subject area that has traditionally worked for us, and still does today, combining Exploration, History, Science, and hopefully the payoff of a new discovery

Does Discovery share the industry’s recent focus on Diversity and Inclusion?

  • Today is the twelve-month anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, and so much has changed since then.
  • We are consciously addressing these issues in our story selection, on-air talent and pool for producers

Rights: How flexible are you?

  • There is flexibility.  We do want to share content globally and would love to have all rights
  • However, we’re open to various models including coproduction, with limited territories and limited rights, considered on a case by case basis
  • Example: Mysterious Planet produced with NHNZ and NHK
  • We also work a lot with BBC

What are the Key Qualities/Criteria that you look for in your copro partners?

  • Flexibility matters
  • The topic that tends to travel the best internationally is Natural History due to its global/universal appeal
  • Always asking: what is the unique take/fresh take?
  • Great characters and great stories: those will always be the filters that we prioritize

HOW TO PITCH?

  • Pitch us the way you’ve always pitched us.
  • We share projects across our teams, and your project will find its way to the right person

More…