Name: David Macdonald
Title: President, Discovery Japan
Hometown: Kingston, Canada
DoB: Feb. 6, 1973
Years in Japan: 25
For 20 years, Discovery Japan had shown television viewers the world around them. While Discovery Channel and Animal Planet were available in millions of Japanese homes, the company behind them knew viewer habits were changing. No longer were people flocking to TV to be entertained; instead they were streaming content online, and Discovery risked being left behind.
So the U.S.-based Discovery Inc. went searching for the right person to bring Discovery Japan into the digital era, and found him at YouTube. David Macdonald had been at the Google-owned online video behemoth for nine years, working with creators in Japan to deliver compelling content.
“The top YouTuber in those days (2009) was a cat called Maru,” he said. “When I joined, one of the challenges was, how do we turn this cat service into something that’s a little more robust?” Finding success at YouTube but keen for a new opportunity, Macdonald signed on as president of Discovery Japan and is now two years into the digital revolution he was brought in to lead.
“My passion is for content,” the Canadian said. “I’m not a capital ‘C’ creator in my own right — I don’t write, I don’t direct — but I like to work with creators and the creative process.” Macdonald, 47, said three big lessons from YouTube inspire his approach at Discovery Japan.
First, content needs to fit the lives of users. This means making content shorter and available on demand rather than curated in the hourlong blocks that make up the programming grid for a broadcaster.
Second, decisions need to be informed by data. The stunning array of data available to a digital streaming service — from the demographics of users to the length of time they watch — can drive creative and commercial decisions.
And third, the culture needs to capture the energy of startups. This means a willingness to try new things and create rapid feedback loops where ideas can be refined as they go.
These lessons have been put into practice with Dplay, the streaming video service launched by Discovery Japan in September 2019. The service gives Japanese viewers access to more than 3,000 episodes of content in Discovery’s catalogue, including fresh programs. This month, the company expanded Dplay to a subscription video-on-demand service in which standard and premium tiers offer additional and ad-free content.
Dplay reflects Discovery’s breadth, covering multiple brands globally. Beyond its eponymous Discovery Channel, Discovery is home to content dedicated to travel (Travel Channel), food (Food Network), lifestyle (TLC), mysteries (Investigation Discovery), automotive (MotorTrend) and a whole lot more under its ethos of “powering people’s passions.”
“Japan is a market where we do want to invest more in local content,” he said. Ideally, he would like Japanese programming that appeals to an international audience, such as a show celebrating Japanese car enthusiasts.
A love of cars is a driving force behind Japanese viewing habits, Macdonald explained. Discovery, whose audience skews toward men, has found that Japanese audiences flock to shows centered around vehicles, “Wheeler Dealers” being one example, and shows such as “Man vs. Wild” that are about survival and adventure.
Macdonald met with The Japan Times at Discovery Japan’s 11th-floor office near Tokyo Station on yet another day of adapting to COVID-19. Like many companies, Discovery was limiting access to visitors who had been in certain hot spots and readying its plans for staff to work from home.
Macdonald said Discovery had seen an uptick in viewer numbers as people stayed close to home and has commissioned a show on the virus. Thinking longer term, Macdonald explained he was not intimidated by Netflix and Amazon throwing around their weight — and cash — in developing programs. Where those outlets mostly produce scripted shows, Discovery exclusively produces reality-based material that tends to be cheaper to make.
Macdonald said he is confident there is room for all of them in the streaming market in Japan. He argues that while streaming is popular among viewers under 30, there are still growth opportunities among older viewers. In addition to this, despite his affinity for digital, Macdonald said broadcasting remains key for Discovery Japan.
“I’m very passionate about the TV experience,” he said. “In Japan’s case, given the demographics of the market, and people’s use of TV for entertainment and as a source of information, I think we’re going to see at least another five to 10 years of a good run on TV.”
Macdonald said he could still enjoy programs from Discovery and its rivals without treating it as work. His background as a military intelligence officer has left him keen on Discovery’s military programs, while he also has a hankering for true crime shows, such as “A Crime to Remember,” a history-slanted documentary series. Since Macdonald joined Discovery Japan in March 2018, he has overseen a significant turnover of staff, bringing in individuals who share his enthusiasm for digital.
Additionally, while Macdonald remains focused on Dplay, he is open to ideas that might extend Discovery into new territory.
“We have such brands that people love to not just view, but also do,” he said. “In the next couple of years I want to ramp up other new revenue streams.”
Could consumers see Japan offer Discovery Expedition, the clothing brand in South Korea that has 200 stores? Or perhaps a Discovery theme park to bring some of its shows to life?
Macdonald said not to expect them anytime soon, but they may yet be part of his big ambitions.
Creative content fuels digital passion
David Macdonald grew up in a military family, spending his childhood in Canada and Germany. He went on to graduate from the Royal Military College of Canada as a military intelligence officer.
Macdonald came to Japan on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) in 1995, teaching English in Aomori Prefecture. During his three years there, he learned iaidō, a martial art in which practitioners draw swords in response to sudden attacks.
While in Aomori, he met the woman who would become his wife and the couple settled in Japan. To build a career here, Macdonald completed a Master of Science in East Asian business from the University of Sheffield.Macdonald has built a career in media, starting at Docomo, then becoming director for Asia Pacific at the Walt Disney Internet Group and later joining YouTube, where he scaled its Asia Pacific content operations. Macdonald joined Discovery Japan as president in 2018.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.