There are those adages about how throwing darts at a stock list or March Madness bracket can yield better results than the most thorough analysis. Choosing TV programming that will resonate has a similar forget-the-science dynamic.
The connection between audience research and ratings success is exceedingly unstable. But, Henry Schleiff does seem to be reasonably sharp with the Hail Marys (or at least know where to find the people who can complete them).
Well-known in the industry, partly because of his volubility and bonhomie with the media, Schleiff's latest successful long pass isn’t getting nearly the publicity as his work transforming Court TV into a hugely valuable asset. After a somewhat unremarkable stint at Hallmark Channel, he’s now leading another impressive and similar reinvention at Investigation Discovery (ID), where he's president and general manager.
At Court TV, Schleiff moved the network away from its trial/legal commentary roots to a true crime orientation in prime time. Just a few years ago, ID was heavy with documentaries and part-owned by the staid New York Times. Now, ID is tabbed as a “guilty pleasure for women.”
Ratings have been on an upswing, bringing leaps in ad revenue and setting the network up for significant growth in affiliate fees. Praise recently has come from Schleiff’s boss, David Zaslav, and now a prominent Wall Street entity.
Zaslav, CEO of Discovery Communications, has said ID is the company's “biggest driver” in ad growth and it’s hardly an emerging network anymore. But, he’s biased.
More impressive was Thursday's commentary from Barclays, which asked whether ID is Discovery’s “new flagship”? Flippant or not, Barclays noted that recently ID has been drawing more total viewers than the Discovery network.
Barclays also estimated that at the end of 2011, the Discovery network was earning 36 cents per subscriber a month in affiliate fees, while ID was at 8 cents. ID ratings should give Discovery “substantial leverage” in coming carriage negotiations, the firm wrote.
By one measure, ID saw ratings in the 25-to-54 demo rise 19% in the January-March quarter, making it a top-25 network.
Last week, Schleiff introduced a slew of new sensationalist programming coming to ID. Stuff is in the true crime genre, but the roots could easily be mistaken for an airport-newsstand mystery novel.
One series focuses on former friends who become enemies, sometimes with fatal results. Another looks at husbands and wives, where there can be similar violence. There’s another show about happy couples on dream vacations, where only one comes back alive – and it’s no accident. And, a fourth about twins who despise each other, where murder can be an outcome.
If these and the likes of “Wives with Knives” and “Pretty Bad Girls” kill in the ratings, it bears watching how long Discovery will be able to hold onto Schleiff. It was a bit surprising when he agreed to become a top -- but not the top -- executive at Discovery, where he's also leading the Military Channel and new Destination America.
Desperate networks might tempt Schleiff to become a CEO again. That will put him back in the headlines.