Discovery's new boss says so long to giant snakes

Ross

PASADEN - There's a new boss in charge at the Discovery Network, and he's anxious to get rid of mega-sharks, mermaids and man-eating snakes.

Rich Ross, a longtime Disney executive who began this week as president of Discovery Communications' flagship channel, said he wants to broaden its appeal to reach more women and families. He has also been quick to make clear what he doesn't want Discovery to be.

The network has been doing well financially but has been criticized, particularly by the scientific community, for some specials that have stretched the boundaries of truth. Most recently, animal rights activists were angered by the "Eaten Alive" premise of an explorer who would be swallowed by a giant anaconda. The reality turned out to be far less dramatic.

Discovery's annual "Shark Week" the past two years have featured fanciful "documentaries" about megalodons. The network also aired a show, produced by sister channel Animal Planet, about mermaids and another about a supposed Russian yeti.

"Brands are all about trust," said Ross, who is replacing former network head Eileen O'Neill and her interim successor Marjorie Kaplan, in an interview last week. "You can expand the universe of what people think you are, but there's only so much elasticity. On Discovery, that's why I talk about authenticity. Authenticity is job No. 1, 2 and 3."

Fictional documentaries, no matter their entertainment value, no longer have their place, he said. "It's not whether I'm a fan of it. I don't think it's actually right for Discovery Channel and it's something that I think has, in some ways, run its course."

"Eaten Alive" had the right intention, to tell the story of a rare and frightening large snake, but misleading packaging, he said. The fervor of the story got out of control, he said.

Judging by how that show backfired, Ross' stance is wise, said Derek Baine, an analyst of the cable market for SNL Kagan. One key part of the strategy now is to build its strength internationally, he said.