Henry Schleiff, the group president of Investigation Discovery (ID), American Heroes Channel and Destination America, shares with TV Real some of the keys to ID’s success.
Among Discovery Communications’ most successful networks, ID has created a devoted, highly engaged audience base with its signature true-crime programming. Schleiff has orchestrated the network’s move into the upper echelons of basic-cable rankings.
TV REAL: What’s been driving your ratings gains?
SCHLEIFF: As the leading, most established, most successful network in the popular genre of true crime, it’s our organizing principle of having a variety of series that look to do three things: entertain, inform, and, on occasion, inspire.
Under the rubric of entertainment, I’d look at the amazing success and record-breaking ratings that we had in all of our key demos for JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery. Following the success of that we have our next three-part event coming up in April, Casey Anthony: An American Murder Mystery. As you know, that was a phenomenal trial here, very controversial. That joins such successful core ID series as See No Evil, Murder Calls, Homicide Hunter, I Am Homicide, and, of course, one of our all-time favorites, Wives with Knives. In January, ID was the number one network in America out of all cable networks, for women 25 to 54, and the number two network for persons 25 to 54, behind ESPN.
For examples of shows that inform, we’ve had tremendous success with magazine-like series—Vanity Fair Confidential, People Magazine Investigates, and coming up we have Scene of the Crime with Tony Harris and The Real Story with Maria Elena Salinas. They join our best-in-class roster of top investigative journalists like Paula Zahn, Chris Hansen, Tamron Hall and the ever-popular Barbara Walters.
And we’re extremely proud to have examples of shows that make a difference, and that over the years have come under our initiative that we have labeled “Inspire a Difference.” We have one coming up called Killing Richard Glossip, an amazing look at the American justice system—which is not always so just—directed and produced by the Emmy Award-winning Joe Berlinger. It’s the story of someone on death row who has been brought down to be executed on three separate occasions, but at the last moment, the procedure was stopped each time. We have a series called Hate in America, working with the Southern Poverty Law Center, that has looked at the rise of hate groups like the KKK over the years.
TV REAL: How have you developed stickiness and engagement on the channel?
SCHLEIFF: There are two aspects. To some extent, we schedule like series one after another, so if you liked that show at nine o’clock, chances are you’ll stick with it at ten o’clock. I will also tell you a little secret because we’re so far in the lead now: it’s the way we tell a story. We tell a story so that the ad breaks come at a critical time; they make you want to stay and watch through that break. It is the reason that we are the number one network out of all networks, cable and broadcast, for length of tune. More people watch us for longer periods of time, uninterrupted, than any other network, cable or broadcast. ID is 50 percent higher than the cable or broadcast average for total day length of tune. Not only is that pleasing for the viewer, it’s very important to our advertising partners because they then realize that their commercial spot is not only going to be watched, but it’s going to be watched with passion. The key word is engagement.
TV REAL: Tell us about ID’s move into scripted programming.
SCHLEIFF: Remember, we’re looking at a background of over 650 original hours of production this year, probably more than any other network like ours. In that context, we are getting into the world of scripted, starting with our first two movies. And these are true stories, amazing stories, that need further exploration. One is Dating Game Killer, produced by Leslie Greif at ThinkFactory. He tells the story of one of the most prolific serial murderers of all time, Rodney Alcala, played by the incredible Guillermo Diaz. The reason it’s called Dating Game Killer is because Rodney Alcala appeared on the popular late 1970s game show The Dating Game. He was actually a winner! Can you imagine what the other two guys were like? And then our other movie is a phenomenally transfixing story called Final Vision, and it’s the true story of Jeffrey MacDonald, who claims he did not, but was convicted of, murdering his pregnant wife and two young children on an Army base where he was a well-respected, well-regarded surgeon. He asked the author Joe McGinniss to become his biographer, so it’s about their relationship. MacDonald is played by Scott Foley from Scandal.
TV REAL: Are you looking at working with your international colleagues on any joint programming initiatives?
SCHLEIFF: By all means. International continues to be a growth area for ID. We have established ourselves quietly but successfully in over 168 markets. In the last year, the average for our audience was up a phenomenal 33 percent internationally year over year, with perhaps our biggest and most successful markets being in South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and the Netherlands. We’ve seen particular growth in Brazil and South Africa. It’s been phenomenal. We launched in Italy in October and France in December.
TV REAL: What are some of the biggest shifts that you’ve witnessed in true-crime programming?
SCHLEIFF: What I’ve seen in the last three, four, five years, in particular, is a growing recognition of the popularity of true crime. You’ve seen it in Serial, a podcast on NPR, you’ve seen that emulated by the success of The Jinx on HBO, you’ve seen that followed by Netflix with Making a Murderer. This is something that viewers just can’t get enough of. So it is particularly satisfying for ID to be recognized in that growing universe as the number one network, the network that is consistently playing this kind of product. I like that these other players, of all sorts—broadcast, pay TV, OTT—dabble on occasion, and quite well, in this area. To me, it looks like an hors d’oeuvre for viewers because they understand that they can come for the full and main dinner consistently, day in and day out, 24/7, 365, at ID.