In January 2010, Dee Forbes became managing director and executive vice president of Discovery UK. Six months later she was heading up the network's Western Europe division. She's just announced Discovery UK's first 3D wildlife commissions, is chair of TV industry body COBA and still gets back to Cork every weekend
When I first met Dee Forbes at the beginning of 2010, she had just joined Discovery and I, then working for a large broadcaster, was invited to a dinner to meet her and hear about the new season's plans. I remember being struck not only by the incredible quality of Discovery's programming, but by the warmth and normality of the new managing director. Forbes had spent 14 years at Turner (Cartoon Network, Boomerang and Turner Classic Movies) and was truly passionate about television – and Discovery, a new genre for her.
"I went from the world of Scooby-Doo! and Ben 10 to Bear Grylls and Deadliest Catch. In terms of genre move it was big, but company wise I have always worked for American organisations – I began my career at Young & Rubicam," she says.
Forbes grew up in Drimoleague, County Cork, studied history and politics at UCD and left Ireland in 1989. She had spent a week in the ad agency of a family friend who suggested that she go to England. He had written to his peers in ad agencies in London introducing her. "I was naïve and 21, and had no problem harassing their secretaries for interviews."
That was an early sign of her steely professional nerve, a quality which she most likely had to call on six months after she started at Discovery. She had been taken on to head Discovery Networks for the UK and Ireland, which included 12 channels, and the affiliated business including websites, mobile and video. "It's a big role," Forbes said at the time. But not as large as the job that was thrust on her only six months later.
"I came in to run the UK business and bring it forward. I was doing that role for about six months when there was a big restructure of the UK and EMEA into Western Europe and CEEMEA," she says.
Forbes became managing director and executive vice president of Discovery Western Europe – a huge transition. She had gone from looking after 12 channel brands in the UK to managing 17 channel brands in 17 markets, including the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Norway and the Netherlands.
"I had previously done European work at Turner," she admits. "But this was enormous. I was just getting my head around the UK business and I had to, all of a sudden, go – great, let's shift the UK into the rest of Europe. The learning curve was steep and is still hugely steep, which is fabulous because it keeps my mind active. I spent six months from July 2010 working out what we had to do with the organisation. What did we need for Western Europe? What did we need to do differently with the structure? How could we develop our people? There were lots of things thrown up in the air and I still had to run it as a business, motivate the team and provide leadership. There was a lot of juggling.
"I brought together teams who hadn't worked together before. There's been a lot of learning on all sides, a lot of tolerance and people having to understand other people's challenges. I have done a few restructures over the years but this was big. We announced the structure at the end of last year and have been up and running as a region since January.
"The great thing was that I found that the team was so strong that I didn't need to make huge changes – it was more about a shift of focus. We are 100 per cent focused on being a content company."
When Discovery began, the model was to create a global programme network, show it around the world and top up with acquisitions. "That's our model," Forbes says. "But Western Europe has such good, mature businesses that in many markets we're competing with the terrestrial channels. Now we're going to use the idea of local commissions and European/international productions to top up the global productions.
"The challenge of the markets is changing, and to satisfy the distribution partners we have to have the best content. Putting content at the heart of the business was the prime focus. We've done that, and it's superb. This is a huge opportunity from the programming side, from the marketing side and it's encouraging staff to think differently. I'm very excited about that development. There's been a growing recognition in the US that having another content pipeline source is a good thing because there's no longer a one-size-fits-all model. Television is evolving, especially in our genre."
Discovery has brought in former Channel 4 wunderkind Julian Bellamy to work on this. "Julian's remit is international, but he is based in London. We are working closely to figure out what are we not getting from the global pipeline that we can do ourselves to top up and maybe make that experience more local. London is an interesting creative hub for TV production and now, with this new structure in place, it will play a bigger role in the overall output of the company. It's a very exciting development – one which came out of the restructure."
But Forbes isn't looking to focus on format sales as a massive revenue stream. Traditionally, Discovery had two income streams: affiliate revenue (from partners such as Sky and Virgin) and advertising. "We do make some money from programme sales but it's not a huge driver. It's just so important to our affiliate partners that our best content is on our channels. What I want to do with Western Europe is have the strongest possible business that will drive the ad revenue that will, in turn, keep our affiliate revenues high."
Discovery has, however, been in the UK since 1989. How can the channel move while staying true to the brand? Forbes smiles. "We've got a core, 'intelligent entertainment' that will always be there but what will be new is how we look at things and this whole idea of topicality and relevance. If you look at the past two years the viewership to news content has rocketed. From Haiti to the [Icelandic] volcano, to the Japanese tsunami – all of a sudden news is a daily consumption. It's no longer something you watch ad hoc. Discovery has a role to play – we're not a news organisation so we won't be out there on day three, but we may be there a few weeks later with an angle that we hope will get the viewers interested. We produced a quick turnaround documentary after the awful events in Norway. Norway Massacre: The Killer's Mind aired across Western Europe, then the States and Latin America.
"Social media has had a large influence – people expect immediacy now. If you want to see news you don't wait until 10 o'clock anymore you just find it wherever. This immediacy will turn to engagement because used in the right way it can get your viewers to come in and talk to you."
Forbes explains about the Discovery programmes that the network did with James Cracknell. He was being filmed running in the Sahara, racing across America, and cycling across the Yukon. Then in America he had a serious accident – thankfully, he's recovered. "When the trilogy aired, we said you can tweet James live during the show, and hear his thoughts. He tweeted and the response was fantastic. People were going – I hope you're ok, how are you? And his responses were emotional. There was a bond between James and his audience. That's powerful."
I remind Forbes about her early months at Discovery UK and the work she commissioned on the Discovery Man. I remember being fascinated and impressed by the money and time spent on unearthing the secrets of the British male. Is she now going to do similar work in all territories? "Absolutely," she replies. "You've got to put the audience at the centre. If you don't know who your audience is you can't talk to them, programme, market, or sell advertising. I thought who is Discovery Man, who's watching, what do we know about him, what do we have to do differently? We had to understand what drives Discovery Man. What makes him different from anybody else? And that gave us huge insight into what we could commission.
"We began to shift our commissioning into more talent-led shows using James [Cracknell] and a new guy called Ed Stafford, who's spent two years walking along the Amazon – that's a great show, really super.
"For the last six months we've been focusing on doing the same across Western Europe and what's incredibly interesting is that the traits of Discovery Man are hugely similar especially between the UK, Nordic [countries] and Benelux. He's an adventurer but life takes over, he settles down, has a family and gets a bit older. There is this fear of leading an inconsequential life. Watching Discovery and getting an adrenaline rush through the programmes is important. And he can talk about it with his friends."
The men might be similar, but aren't the different regions looking for their own Bear Grylls? "It's interesting, there is this huge acceptance of strong British talent in the region. So we have rolled out Ed Stafford… he's doing a roadshow in the Nordic territories and it's going down really well. But yes, in some areas we have to do things a bit differently. For example, Deadliest Catch (crab fishermen in the Bering Sea) was only performing averagely in Italy. It's a very emotional show but it wasn't connecting so we hooked up with a famous Italian sailor and he did 'intros' and 'outros' for the show, gave his perspective on a particular episode and pulled out the emotion. It's localisation on a smaller scale. In any market, when someone comes to Discovery they know they will be entertained and will learn something. In a world where you can get content anywhere, to have a brand as curator is so valuable."
Her talent shows in the results. Discovery Channel's UK reach has increased year-on-year from 2.9 million adults a week to 3.2 million and has grown 26 per cent year-on-year among ABC1 men – she is undoubtedly an unflappable businesswoman but the last 12 months can't have been without challenges. She nods.
"The challenge was the combination of the head space and the time to do the restructure," she explains. "You're dealing with human beings, people's lives and careers – you can't just flick a switch and it's done. Thankfully, I was given the time to come up with the structure and we had strong, very regular communication with the staff.
"It's hugely fulfilling when you come out the other end and you think, OK, great, let's put it into place and see how it goes. I'm a nurturing leader – I love to watch people develop. I respect people's contributions, what they have to say and what they have to offer – I need great people around me. Spending time with people, developing and encouraging them is massively important. I am a great believer in human support. My mother, father, my partner and friends were all there through all of this and kept me sane. And I have a little bunch of trusted people I would call mentors who are hugely helpful to me such as Nan Richards at Turner and Mick Buckley at CNBC. I find inspiration by reading. I read a lot. I'm a great fan of the iPad – I have everything on there from the Huffington Post to the FT to the New York Times. I read the Guardian on a Monday and I dip in and out of the Harvard Business Review – it's superb. I bought Harvard books on structural change when I was going through all this."
So nine months on, Forbes's restructure is in place but with 17 countries to manage, she must be clocking up the air miles. What does her working week look like now things have settled?
"I have been spending a lot more time out of the UK because I really wanted to get to know the business in these markets. I have strong people heading up every market or region. I was in Munich taking care of the German business for a few months as we didn't have a head. That was brilliant because the market is very different. I'm also spending quite a lot of time in Milan. That's a very big centre for us. We launched Real Time, a female lifestyle channel in free to air, in the middle of the restructure last year. We're now taking our ad sales in-house, which is huge. I get to the States regularly to meet with the US heads. I've always loved travel, but it takes some organisation. Every week I'm probably somewhere, but I always try and get back to this side of the world on a Friday. My partner lives in Ireland so as long as I can back get to Cork on a Friday I'm happy."
Dee Forbes will be a speaker at the IoD's Women as Leaders conference on 9 November. For tickets, please go to www.iod.com/womenasleaders