“Ninety Day Fiancé” is, on some Sunday nights, the most-watched show on television. And in the latest innovation in streaming, Discovery+ includes a channel that lets you watch it for four days straight without seeing the same episode twice.
If you’re not familiar with the six-year-old show, as a surprisingly large share of New Yorkers (my editors here, shamefully, included) are, the 90 days of the title refers to the period in which the noncitizen holder of a K-1 visa may remain in the country before marriage or face deportation. The show chronicles couples through that period, complete with skeptical in-laws, bickering and the enchantment or disenchantment with Nebraska or New Hampshire, all with countdown music and chyrons like “73 Days to Wed.”
Now, on the Discovery+ show “90 Days Bares All” (one of about a dozen spinoffs, including “90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantined”), the show can “push the boundaries even further versus the standards and practices of a regular cable channel,” said Howard Lee, the president of TLC, one of the cable networks that make up Discovery’s U.S. business. So you can watch the couples scream curses at one another, unbleeped, or discuss their favorite sex toys.
The biggest story in big media these days is the “streaming wars,” the scramble by the people who traditionally make TV and movies to catch up with Netflix. Disney is dominating the race for second place; it’s unclear who else will even survive. CBS limps to the party next month with Paramount+, with the hopeful (to the company) and terrifying (to consumers) suggestion that normal, content-addicted Americans will wind up putting down their credit cards for five different streaming services.
Discovery, the dominant programmer of what used to be called “reality TV” and it now prefers to call “real life,” has emerged as perhaps the most successful new entrant to this complicated, high-stakes competition. It is bringing along a mostly female audience. The company says it has 12 million paid subscriptions around the world, a more than respectable start that has helped make the company’s stock among the best performing on the S&P 500 this year (though it’s also riding a broader wave in the market).
The app, which was introduced on Jan. 4, has a sheer mass of content that rivals Netflix, with 55,000 episodes — and it’s rolling out a suite of exclusive content dominated by American cultural figures like Oprah Winfrey, a procession of People cover fixtures led by Chip and Joanna Gaines and pop icons including the chef Guy Fieri. (Discovery also bid nine figures for a deal with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but the couple chose to go with Netflix, which has been less insistent on exclusivity, two people familiar with the conversations said.)
The app’s early success is partly the result of a deal with Verizon, and Discovery won’t disclose the share of its subscriptions coming via that route; it also won’t say how many subscriptions are to an unrelated European sports service. (A media analyst, Michael Nathanson, estimates that Verizon provided about 20 percent of the five million subscriptions in the United States.) But the surge in new sign-ups this year beat analysts’ expectations, initial validation of the company’s big bet that delivering shows through new apps on a range of devices is now a fully mainstream phenomenon. And as the hype falls away about technical bells and whistles and using new kinds of data to predict people’s interests, the audience still loves watching people fix houses, tour diners, crawl around sewers and bicker about their relationships.
“Our bet is when the world makes a full rotation, that the content people have chosen when they could choose anything on TV or cable, the content that they love and run home for — “90 Day,” “Fixer Upper,” “Property Brothers” — they’re still going to love that,” said David M. Zaslav, the president and chief executive of Discovery. “In the end, people really don’t change that much.”
That’s Mr. Zaslav’s unromantic version of the old declaration that content is king. And it’s a punctuation mark to a media era that began with a vertiginous sense of transformation. It has instead devolved into me explaining to my 11-year-old Disney’s devious strategy of releasing a single episode of “WandaVision” at the same time each week, producing an experience mysteriously identical to the way we used to watch television.
Mr. Zaslav, too, is the last of his kind — the “last tycoon,” his old friend, the former HBO chief executive Richard Plepler, told me. He’s a relentless, fleece-vested mogul who likes to call reporters to talk his own book (and caught me on Tuesday morning in a moment of panic about what I would write this week). He likes to visit his stars at home, and to keep them close. He pals around with Disney’s former chief, Bob Iger, and Mr. Plepler, and others who rose by creating television and films. But those companies are now run by people who come out of other parts of the business — telecommunications or apps or theme parks. He’s a Hamptons mainstay who also holds an annual “boys’ dinner” for 50 of his closest male friends, including Apple’s content chief Eddy Cue and the Netflix co-chief executive Ted Sarandos, in Los Angeles. The dinner is held during a golf tournament to which Discovery holds the television rights.
The smooth start of Discovery+ comes as streamers closer to the heart of the media class are struggling. Apple’s service is off to a slow start. WarnerMedia’s HBO Max has been defined by stumbles. But Discovery remains in an odd position in the media business: The company, which is valued at more than $23 billion, is far smaller than the handful of dominant media and telecommunications conglomerates. But it is too big to be acquired by any but a few companies. There’s a running debate among those who know Mr. Zaslav about whether he’s buying or selling — that is, whether Discovery+ is another move to make the company more attractive for a giant to swallow before the bottom really falls out of the U.S. cable business or whether the company’s current high stock price will prompt Mr. Zaslav to acquire other businesses.
“He should use this opportunity to make his business stronger,” said Mr. Nathanson, the media analyst, who suggested that Discovery “buy CNN.”
Mr. Zaslav, who was involved in the creation of CNBC and MSNBC as an executive at NBC from 1989 to 2006, has begun to play in the global news business. Discovery is an investor in GB News, a right-of-center television challenger to the BBC. In Poland this year, the Discovery-owned channel TVN went dark along with other media outlets to protest the latest government attempt to hobble independent media. Mr. Zaslav said the investments in those channels were part of a strategy to sell streaming services as a bundle with news and sports.
But he said he hadn’t talked to CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, an East Hampton golf partner, about buying the network from its parent company, AT&T, and signaled that he was leery of the political charge that comes with top-shelf American cable news.
“News is very overplayed and excoriated here in the U.S.,” he said.
Discovery has its own nuanced cultural politics, which are the subject of a whole school of cultural criticism. The success of “90 Day” tracked Donald Trump’s xenophobic rise, and the show was “so rooted in real-world consequences and the real lives of these people that it often feels too tender to touch,” Scaachi Koul wrote in 2019. “The politics of immigration and class and race and gender are so present in every episode, you sometimes have to watch through the cracks of your eyelids.”
Much of the company’s audience emphatically includes Donald Trump’s America (though shows like “90 Day” also have cult followings among, say, readers of New York Magazine’s Vulture). Some of its programming is resolutely anti-coastal. But its casting is inclusive, its couples diverse. And its programming also offers a clue as to why Republican attempts to revive, in particular, anti-L.G.B.T. culture war attacks have lost some of their political effectiveness. TLC’s version of real life regularly includes an array of couples. One “90 Day” spinoff tells the story of an American-born partner relocating to his husband’s native Mexico and grappling with overt homophobia. At one point, looking up at a giant statue of Jesus Christ in Cantamar, the American-born partner reassures his husband, “I think he would approve of us.”
The tensest relationships for Mr. Zaslav, as for the other streamers, are with distributors. The chairman of the Dish Network last week warned Discovery that selling content through the app could mean lower fees from cable companies and other pay TV operators. But that threat hasn’t materialized yet.
The bigger question may be if and when the service will develop an identity, or high-profile programming, that feels more than a supplement to the television network. It is an experiment, as my colleague John Koblin wrote, in whether people will pay $5 a month (or $7 without ads) for a service that plays in the background while you fold laundry or pay the bills.
So far, the exclusive content is mostly for superfans of specific shows, with occasional experiments with formats that don’t fit neatly onto cable. One early attempt is “Ben’s Workshop,” which the host, Ben Napier, said he was pleased that Discovery+ had picked up. “People kept saying, ‘Ben should have a woodworking show’ and I kept retweeting it and tagging the network and saying we should do this,” he said. “I didn’t care if it was going to be a social media-only show. I really wanted to make the show.” And Mr. Fieri told me he’s shooting four episodes of an adventure show in Hawaii for the service that “wouldn’t have been able to sit right in that mainstream track of doing what Food Network does.”
But the company says it will increasingly put more of its desirable content there first, including a drinking show featuring the chef Ina Garten and the actress Melissa McCarthy, as well as shows with the promising titles, “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook: Uncensored” and “Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure.”
And while the emergence of Discovery+ is mostly an indication that shifting distribution technologies haven’t changed American tastes, that doesn’t mean the shift is without consequence. Sunny Anderson, a co-host of “The Kitchen” on the Food Network, said she had been — mostly — enjoying a wave of feedback about older content.
Last week, a viewer messaged her to congratulate her on her weight loss.
“I thought, what did they watch? I haven’t lost any weight,” she said, then realized that they were deep in her library, watching old episodes of her show “Cooking for Real.” She said she had to reply, “You’re watching me 10 years ago, I’ve actually gained weight.”