Most cable networks have seen a decline in viewership over the last five years or so as more people cut the cord and spend more time watching Netflix (NFLX -1.51%). But one network has been able to buck that trend: Discovery Communications (DISC.A) (DISC.B). Viewers spent 33% more time watching Discovery's channels in the year ending in February 2016 compared to the year ending in February 2011.

To be sure, Discovery is still losing subscribers in the U.S. But Discovery and TLC viewers are a dedicated group, enabling Discovery to continue increasing its advertising revenue. Meanwhile, increases in its distribution fees are helping offset subscriber losses. Overall, Discovery Communications is well positioned to weather the increase in cord-cutting.

A great white shark

Discovery's Shark Week is celebrated by many as a national holiday. Image source: Getty Images.

A few numbers worth a look

As mentioned, Discovery's networks are not immune to cord-cutting.


2011 Subscribers

2016 Subscribers


100 million

92 million


99 million

91 million

Animal Planet

97 million

90 million

Data source: Annual reports.

Despite the subscriber losses, though, Discovery is managing to increase both U.S. distribution revenue and advertising revenue.




Distribution Revenue



Ad Revenue



Data source: Annual reports.

The distribution revenue increases are primarily due to contractual rate increases with pay-TV companies. The increase in ad revenue is thanks to the fact that Discovery has been able to keep viewers interested in its programming, therefore making its ad inventory more valuable.

Likewise, the dedicated viewer base makes it hard for pay-TV distributors to ditch Discovery's networks entirely. The Discovery Channel is the top cable network television channel viewers say they would subscribe to a la carte if it was an option. While Discovery Communications' other networks didn't crack the top 20, the Discovery Channel gives it a lot of leverage with distributors to take as many networks as it has to sell.

New entrants like YouTube TV and Hulu Live opted not to take Discovery's channels. It'll be interesting to see how that decision affects their performances against similar services like PlayStation Vue or DIRECTV NOW.

Growing content spend is keeping viewers tuned in

One of the biggest factors fueling the amount of time viewers are watching Discovery's networks is the rapid growth in its content spend. From 2010 to 2016, Discovery's content expense increased from $773 million to $2.05 billion.

Discovery has been able to fuel that content investment by repurposing much of its U.S. content for use internationally, where it's growing rapidly. Discovery's reach has grown from 1.7 billion total global subscribers in 2011 to 2.8 billion as of the end of 2016. And that's at the same time it's losing millions of domestic subscribers across its most popular networks.

In that sense, Discovery is taking a similar approach as Netflix. Netflix is spending hundreds of millions on original content with the idea that it can use all of that content globally, improving the efficiency of its content spending. And it's seeing similar results: increased viewership.

Of course, Netflix's rapid subscriber growth over the last five years enabled it to grow average view time nearly 8-fold. Discovery's networks are only up 33%. That's a lot better than every other major media company, though.