Discovery: Full-Episode Streaming Over Our Dead Bodies

While paying lip service to Hulu is something even its non-partners like CBS do on a regular basis, long-form distribution of TV shows is still a surprisingly controversial idea for some. Discovery Communications in particular advocates a strategy that could be described as the opposite of Hulu.

Discovery CEO and President David Zaslav said in an on-stage interview at the NAB Show in Las Vegas today that he didn’t see an economic model for free web distribution of long-form content. He said he’d only distribute episodes online if circumstances forced him to, and so far the numbers aren’t significant enough. “If people start watching content on mobile phones and on the web in droves, we will have to go there or we will lose market share.”

I asked him off-stage when that day might be, and his response was an emphatic “Hopefully never!” He described a la carte online content consumption, where fans identify more with shows than the channels they run on, as the antithesis of Discovery’s niche brand strategy.

To date, Discovery has perhaps been the most cautious of all networks in terms of distributing content online from its suite of 13 cable channels, which include the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and TLC. Discovery gets about half its revenue from distribution with MSOs, and sees its content as a timeless resource that it can continue to milk via reruns and syndication deals.

“The sky is not really falling over traditional broadcast television,” said Discovery’s Doug Craig, senior vice president of programming for the company’s digital media division, on a later panel about young people’s content consumption habits. “As they get older they’re not going to stop watching television,” he said. Craig described digital distribution as a complement and extension of TV — essentially, marketing.

Discovery produces about 400 short-form clips per month for YouTube and elsewhere, diving into its 20-year archive for clippable gems (more on that here). The DiscoveryNetworks YouTube channel has some solid million-view hit videos, but it doesn’t even make YouTube’s hundred most-viewed channels of all time.

Tonight’s episode of MythBusters is based entirely around YouTube-submitted topics, after overwhelming audience response to a call for video submissions last November, said Craig. But the episode itself won’t be available online.

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