How The Discovery Channel Makes Mobile Apps Pay

Discovery Communications may not distribute much of its full-length premium content freely on the web, but the company — which owns TLC, Animal Planet and of course the Discovery Channel — has experimented quite liberally when it comes to mobile. That includes its own mobile applications, both ad-supported and paid, as well as participation in paid streaming services like the new one from Fox (s NWS), Bitbop.

Discovery this week released an “uber-fan” iPhone (s AAPL) app for its well-loved show “MythBusters,” and we used that occasion to talk to Todd Zander, the company’s VP of digital media distribution. I was particularly interested in the fact that the app costs $3.99, especially given that it doesn’t include long-form TV content. But asking fans of a specific show to demonstrate their love by one, pulling out their wallet; and two, volunteering a persistent connection to the phone in their pocket is a pretty great move (see my previous story about the paid This American Life iPhone app, which offers streaming access to its full show catalog).

The MythBusters app, developed with Phunware, launched this week and currently ranks No. 6 among iTunes’ paid entertainment apps. It includes integrations with Twitter to converse with other fans watching the show, three casual games (for instance, Soda Bomb has users compete to explode virtual Diet Coke and Mentos as far as the can into the air by tilting their phones in the direction they want to shoot and shaking their phones to boost their power) and 300 minutes of ad-free short-form video content, some of it exclusive. Zander said Discovery got advice from Apple many times throughout the development process about how to best engage fans.

Discovery has previously released iPhone apps for Discovery Channel, TLC, Discovery News, TreeHugger and Petfinder, all of them free and ad-supported. But Zander said they are monetizing as well. Through a partnership with Rhythm New Media, Discovery gets around $35 CPMs for pre-roll ads and $10-$12 for banner ads and is nearly sold out. “When you compare that to $1-$2 eCPM on the mobile web it’s like night and day,” he said. The company also has a freemium app for its show “Cash Cab,” which asks users to pay up after they get one free round.

Meanwhile, Discovery pushes long-form video through relationships with premium platforms and applications like Bitbop, Verizon (s vz) and QuickPlay. “We believe in our strategy to distribute short- and long-form video to third-party providers,” said Zander. “At this point we’re not interested in getting into selling content on our own.”

As for a tablet application? Something on the iPad? “Yes, we’re doing something tablet-specific that we can’t disclose,” said Zander.

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