Interview with Amanda Turnbull, VP & GM, Discovery Middle East and Africa

April 2019 Cover Story: Interview with Digital Studio's Broadcast Executive of the Year Amanda Turnbull, Vice President and General Manager, Discovery Middle East & Africa
Digital Studio Awards 2019, Broadcast Executive of the Year, Amanda Turnbull, Discovery Middle East & Africa
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Digital Studio Awards 2019, Broadcast Executive of the Year, Amanda Turnbull, Discovery Middle East & Africa

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Amanda Turnbull, Vice President and General Manager, Discovery Middle East & Africa won the prestigious Broadcast Executive of the Year award at the Digital Studio Awards 2019. In this month’s cover feature interview, Amanda discusses a wide range of issues from Discovery’s commitment to local storytelling, the state of MENA broadcasting, digital growth, and women leaders in broadcasting.

Digital Studio: Congratulations on winning the DS Broadcast Executive of the Year award. What do you think made you stand out as a winner for our judges?

Thank you! The announcement on the night came as a very pleasant surprise as there were so many strong contenders in the category, who are all doing brilliant things within their own companies. I like to believe that the judges were impressed by Discovery's commitment to local programming, which I have been spearheading since arriving in the region over five years ago. I don't know of any other international broadcaster in the region that invests in and delivers as much local content as we do — no subtitles, no voice-overs, just pure Arabic content.

I hope, as well, that the judges recognised the work I do outside of the office, including being part of the TECOM Incubator programme, which does a fantastic job of recognising and rewarding new and emerging talent in the region.

DS: Tell us about the Discovery's upcoming plans for Arabic language programming and local storytelling.

They are not so much upcoming, rather being live right now! We are in full pre-Ramadan lockdown for Fatafeat, filming four linear shows of over 65 hours of brand-new food content, with top talent including Manal Al-Alem, and a new Saudi chef Afnan Al Tabkh. Chef Orfali's show ‘Matbakhna al Arabi’ returns for its fifth season, which we're very excited about, as well as a new show about GCC cuisine called ‘Bil Afya Ma' Hayat’, hosted by a new Emirati cook, Hayat Al Shaibani.

We are also receiving fantastic interactions and responses to our brilliant story-telling on Fatafeat's YouTube channel, where the team have been experimenting with all sorts of new ideas and shows — we see it as almost an incubator for new talent and ideas, and it's great to be able to get immediate viewer responses.

Discovery is filming four linear shows with over 65 hours of brand-new food content on Fatafeat for the upcoming Ramadan month

DS: Given the evolving media landscape how do you see the future of pay-TV in the region?

Globally, the pay-TV market is reinventing itself and the MENA region is no different, though there are some unique systemic and geopolitical issues at play here which make the business challenges particularly acute.

What’s clear is that consumers are increasingly discerning when it comes to paying for content, be that via traditional platforms, telco's, or new entrants at both local and global levels. As content owners, we are constantly assessing the options and pivot our windowing strategy across FTA, pay-TV and digital platforms, offering a strategic mix of both B2B2C and D2C options. 

DS: In what areas of the business do you see the most potential for growth in the next few years?

For us at Discovery, we want to continue to optimise the power of our global portfolio to develop compelling specialist offerings, in both the linear and digital direct-to-consumer space. We target passionate fan communities - for example, lovers of space and science, crime and investigation, home and decor, food and cooking, or turbo content. We excel in non-scripted content, which gives us a differentiated product whilst others are competing in the saturated, high-cost and high-risk scripted content space.

DS: How do you identify opportunities for partnerships and potential synergies?

We like to work with people who share our values and complement our skill set. For example, we worked with Roya TV to co-produce one of our travel show formats in Jordan, working with their team and their contacts on the ground to localise production and assist in sourcing relevant sponsors to underwrite our costs.

Similarly, in Johannesburg we work with Viacom to jointly sell our ad space, leveraging our combined scale and reach across complementary audience demographics.

DS: Discovery is building OTT apps for different verticals like Fatafeat. What is the current thinking behind the digital offerings of Discovery?

Digital growth comes from tapping into our passionate communities of fans, so I am interested in looking at how we can use our new targeted vertical products for superfans, using streams such as MotorTrend and GOLFTV in both the Middle East and Africa markets.

We want our products to not only deliver a viewing experience, but also optimised service and utility features. For example, with GOLFTV, you can not only watch all the majors, but also book a tee time or ‘click’ to buy new equipment. Notably, you can learn from Tiger Woods and his caddy who will be creating special content exclusively for us. This is the type of holistic experience that will keep fans engaged and within the boundaries of our own ecosystem.

In addition to sport, food is an interesting segment for us, as we also own Food Network. We have been doing some fascinating work for Fatafeat, with the global opportunity to tailor content for the Muslim population who are looking for halal recipes — and how this complements Food Network's more Americanized food offering.

DS: With multi-platform delivery becoming more and more important, do you see the need to upgrade your technology infrastructure in the near future?

We constantly look to make sure we are keeping up with changing technologies. Recently we installed 4K cameras in our studio in Dubai, which allows us to not only give our viewers crystal clear picture but also allows us to work to any level for our Discovery colleagues around the world who want to film in our studio, as the Italian food team did a few weeks ago.

We are also very lucky to partner with some great companies in the region, and recently our service playout provider DuSamacom have affected upgrades that allow us to broadcast live. This has been a brilliant coup globally as we have been one of the few regions to be able to stream live broadcasts from the US, with shows like ‘Discovery Live: Into the Blue Hole’ and ‘Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live’ airing in the past few months – at the same minute as it’s being recorded elsewhere around the globe.

DS: With the constantly changing consumption behaviours and tastes how does Discovery plan its programming strategy?

There are two halves to this question for me — the global Discovery answer, and our local production. In Dubai, I am very lucky to have a very experienced programming team working year-round to provide fantastic content for Fatafeat, and I like to think we lead rather than follow when it comes to trends and ideas. We also make good use of our huge digital fanbase to deliver bespoke content for each of our digital channels — we are Snapchat's Discover partner for food in the region, we have over 600,000 subscribers on YouTube, 800,000 on Instagram and 5.4 million on Facebook. We are able to experiment with new content and talent and get feedback very easily.

Globally, we make use of Discovery's world-class production output, and we have had some fantastic meetings recently in our new EMEA HQ in Amsterdam with the President of Lifestyle Brands, Kathleen Finch, who was very engaged in understanding our markets and what they require.

DS: Discovery recently launched the Real Time channel in South Africa. What is the strategy behind launching the channel and tell us about your plans for the African region?

We’ve been broadcasting across Sub-Saharan Africa since 1996, so we already had a strong and growing presence in the market. Much like the Middle East, Africa is a region where the concept of paying for content is growing and digital transformation is taking hold – all of which make it an incredibly exciting place to do business.

Since I took responsibility for the market, my focus has been to diversify our traditional pay platform business, working with different partners and expanding our content delivery models to ensure we remain competitive.

The biggest step in this plan saw us launch our first free ad-funded DTT/DTH channel in South Africa last year – Real Time, a female-orientated general entertainment channel featuring a blend of tried and trusted content from our most popular flagship brands. Real Time is fast becoming our third biggest network in South Africa, and this year will see us expand the channel’s distribution across Sub-Saharan Africa with multiple operators.

In addition to this, we’re also in talks with several telco operators, as we look to bring our global content direct to mobile users.

DS: What opportunities are there to collaborate with Discovery Network offices around the world and benefit from the Discovery brand?

One of my favourite things about Discovery is how closely we work between our regional offices. I am on a fortnightly call with the other country managers, in addition to regular group meetings in London, Amsterdam and Warsaw. I encourage my team to go out into the network on a regular basis. Of course, being in Dubai it’s always easy to persuade people to come and see us during the winter months!

Some of the collaborative projects the team and I are currently working on with other offices include looking at how we can use our Dubai studio to become an EMEA hub for producing food and lifestyle content; collaborating on creative solutions ideas for our advertising clients; and sharing best practice for new business opportunities.

DS: What advice would you give to local content creators looking to produce premium quality shows for the Discovery Network?

Globally, across all our channels, Discovery first focuses on the people you want to put on screen. Real-life ‘characters’ are what make our shows so compelling, be it a chef, a survivalist or a detective. For Discovery Channel itself, we often get proposals about big construction projects in the Middle East, but we need to know that it will be a story full of fascinating people. Unrestricted access is also really important. Without it, shows can end up feeling too stiff and corporate — we have to be able to record the highs and the lows of any project, with free editorial control.

A good foot in the door with us is through Fatafeat's digital platforms — we are always looking for interesting short-to-medium form shows with attached talent.

DS: As a leader in the broadcast industry, what advice would you give women in the industry?

I’m a big believer in supporting other women to achieve their professional goals.

When I looked around the room at the Digital Studio Awards, I felt particularly proud to find that the Discovery table was the only one with predominantly women at it.

These women represent our management team across disciplines including finance, ad sales, production, content, communications and marketing, all of whom contributed in some way to our success on the night and prove that with a strong network of passionate women, anything is possible.

For women looking to break into the industry, my strongest piece of advice would be to jump in with both feet. There will be bumps along the way, but as long as you continue to grow and learn from these, you’ll keep moving forward. Network and build your own community of mentors and peers who you can turn to for advice and support and take advantage of every opportunity you’re presented with. Nothing is more effective than dedication, perseverance, passion and a little sprinkle of luck when you’re looking to succeed.

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