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Discovery+: Why are shows moving back and forth between streaming and cable?

After I answered a question about why Paramount+ did not have all seasons of The Challenge and Real World, I received this follow-up on social media about Discovery Plus, and how shows keep moving from cable networks to the pay streaming service and back again:

Okay…now explain the WTF’ry that goes along with Discovery+ and the fact that many of their “exclusives” are now available on demand for free? I don’t understand why these networks think they are worth paying for just to jerk people around. —Kim

It’s a great question—and one that Discovery’s CEO was asked recently when the company announced its first-quarter earnings.

TV shows that have moved from Discovery’s cable channels—Food Network, HGTV, TLC, ID, Travel Channel, Science Channel, OWN, MotorTrend, Animal Planet, and Discovery Channel—to its new pay streaming service Discovery+ include new episodes of Food Network’s classic Alton Brown series Good Eats and Restaurant: Impossible; Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, The Dead Files, and Portals to Hell; Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch: Bloodline; and Animal Planet’s Crikey! It’s the Irwins.

The moves are happening so frequently that some networks’ websites even have a generic page saying “This [network] show is now streaming on discovery+”: TLC, Animal Planet, Science Channel.

The moves have provoked a lot of anger and resentment; see the extensive comments here for just a few examples. The Internet has been referring to this as Discovery Plus stealing shows, which explains how people feel about it: It feels like theft to have paid for cable, and now find reality shows they’ve paid for taken away, and held for ransom, to extend the metaphor further.

I first became aware of this when, early this year, Food Network’s long-running business makeover reality show Restaurant: Impossible premiered its 18th season. But only one episode aired on cable TV, as Discovery moved the show to its new streaming service, Discovery+.

This was a surprise. As I reported back then, Restaurant: Impossible was not among the “exclusive original series” that Discovery+ had announced in December. The show’s star, Robert Irvine, didn’t seem happy, tweeting an apology and saying he was passing along “all these comments to the network.”

The creation of Discovery+ and these shifts are all happening in part because people are fleeing from cable. In its first-quarter report, filed April 29, 2021, Discovery said the number of people paying to watch on cable dropped: “Total subscribers to our linear networks at March 31, 2021 were 4% lower than at March 31, 2020, while subscribers to our fully distributed linear networks were 2% lower than the prior year.”

In its annual report, the company said, “In 2020, total U.S. Networks portfolio subscribers declined 5% while subscribers to our fully distributed networks declined 3%. In order to respond to changes in content distribution models in our industry, we have invested in, developed and launched DTC products including dplay, JOYN, MotorTrend and our new discovery+ product.”

But Discovery currently gets most of its viewers and revenue from cable. The Q1 2021 report said it had “3.7 billion cumulative subscribers and viewers worldwide through networks that we wholly or partially own,” and that “As of March 31, 2021, we had approximately 13 million total DTC subscribers.”

DTC is “direct to consumer,” which includes Discovery+. In other words, Discovery+ is currently just a tiny fraction of their audience, but it’s also the future. The report details how much money the company is spending building Discovery Plus.

While it’s aggravating to see Discovery pull shows off cable, it’s at least understandable: they’re trying to build a business for the future. Yet after enticing people to pay for Discovery+ just to see Robert Irvine sledgehammer through old restaurant walls and bad business practices, Discovery moved the show back to Food Network in March.

It’s not the only one. Shows that have also made the jump from cable channels to Discovery+ and are now back on cable include:

  • HGTV’s Property Brothers: Forever Home
  • Travel Channel’s Kindred Spirits
  • Travel Channel’s Expedition Bigfoot
  • Travel Channel’s Ghost Nation
  • ID’s American Monster
  • ID’s The Murder Tapes
  • ID’s True Conviction
  • ID’s See No Evil
  • ID’s Evil Lives Here
  • ID’s Fear Thy Neighbor
  • ID’s Web of Lies
  • Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible
  • Food Network’s Chopped Sweets
  • Discovery’s Undercover Billionaire

And shows have premiered as Discovery+ exclusives and then been moved to cable include:

(Am I missing some? Let me know and I’ll add them to the list! The list was last updated May 30, 2021.)

So what if you paid for Discovery+ to see Restaurant: Impossible or one of these other shows, and then discovered it was back on cable TV just a few months later? Moving shows back after getting people to pay for them just feels like twisting the knife.

It turns out this experimentation is exactly the point. Discovery—which made $2.792 billion in the first three months of this year, and is worth $25.513 billion—is trying things and seeing what people do, so we’re basically guinea pigs in a massive corporation’s experiments.

Discovery Plus

David Zaslav, the president and CEO of Discovery, was asked about this very thing in a conference call with investors and analysts just a few weeks ago. Doug Mitchelson with Crédit Suisse first tasked about how they are “balancing content” across Discovery+ and linear networks, and Zaslav said:

We will continue to experiment with how we move IP around. We have a lot of originals now on discovery+, and we have more coming.

He also noted that “our top original shows and top shows from our channels are only generating about 10% of the viewership” on Discovery+, meaning that most people are watching the “very long tail library,” as Zaslav described it. People are “spending over three hours” watching, “and that’s generating real economics for us on the advertising side, which has surprised us,” he said.

Rich Greenfield of Lightshed Partners asked, “How do you and the team decide, what goes digital first to discovery+ versus what goes to the linear networks? And how are you making those decisions? And is it changing already?”

Zaslav, who made $37.7 million in 2020, answered:

Look, we’re learning a lot. We had a ton of originals. And we could see what’s working, what kind of content people are watching. We have—it’s pretty fluid. We have higher production values. We’ve spent a little bit more star power on discovery+. We’re trying to figure out what is the plus. Fixer Upper, we didn’t—and Chip and [Joanna], we haven’t put anywhere except for discovery+. That was a big helper to us. The BBC content will only be on discovery+, which we’re experimenting with. We put a 90-day series on that only went on discovery+, and it drove a lot of subscribers and a lot of viewership.

And then those viewers are watching our whole 90-day library with over 150 hours of original on there. So we’re trying to—and then at some point, that we put that back on some of that content back, that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now. But we’ve been able to feed the growth. As Gunnar said, we’re seeing some steady and strong growth on discovery+.

It is refreshing that he admits “we’re trying to figure out right now” what exactly they’re doing. How is all of this experimentation going so far? In a statement released April 28, Zaslav said, “discovery+ is off to a fantastic start by any measure. Key metrics, including subscriber additions, customer engagement, and retention, are exceeding our expectations and demonstrating sustained momentum into the second quarter.”

Customers may be engaged and retained, but will viewers’ expectations be exceeded if they keep being asked to pay for the same thing twice?

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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