Cosgrove’s Challenge:Rethinking What’s New

If you talk to Tom Cosgrove, president and CEO of the Sony/ Discovery/IMAX 3D joint venture 3net about the new 24-hour, fully programmed 3D TV network, it’s easy to forget you’re speaking with a television executive rather than a television fan.

“What I saw on the new 3D monitors just blew me away, to the point that I felt like what I was watching was a better, more intimate experience than what I’d even seen in the theater,” Cosgrove says of the view you get with a 3D TV set. “And that was with very simple content. I thought, imagine what we could do if we could use this to tell a story and build out hours of content.”

One year after the joint venture was announced, that content features numerous original and acquired 3D programming, including two original native 3D series and two films announced by 3net last week at the International Consumer Electronics Show. The lineup will debut when the channel—one of the first of its kind in the U.S.—launches early this year.

“Tom is very much a student of television,” says Jeff Shell, Comcast Programming Group president, who as CEO of Gemstar TV Guide International worked with Cosgrove during his two-year tenure there as general manager. “He knows the machinery of television, he knows the audience polls and research. He’s great to work with because he really understands it from a consumer perspective.”

Cosgrove also loves a good challenge. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1987, Cosgrove interned with telecommunications company LiTel Communications. He was eventually charged with the business management of a proposed phone line streaming service similar to VOD. And though the technology needed a few more years, Cosgrove was instantly hooked on pursuing television’s new frontiers.

“[The experience] opened up a world and a business to me in a way that I hadn’t seen before,” he recalls. “Up until that point, I was involved in television only as a viewer. Now I was able to see it as this interesting peek into where things are going to head. And in many ways, that pushes me still.”

After returning to school for his M.B.A. in 1989, Cosgrove took up post in Chicago as Media Supervisor at Leo Burnett U.S.A. He left the ad agency in 1994, his curiosity piqued by the nascent Fox Broadcasting Co. Joining as a director of sales research and marketing, Cosgrove encountered plenty of skepticism about the network’s ability to become a serious broadcast competitor. But like his experience at LiTel, he saw Fox’s then-underdog status as another opportunity to rethink television.

“It was a small group of people saying ‘Let’s figure it out.’ It was one of those environments where if you raised your hand to do something, you were suddenly in charge. And I had an interest in raising my hand,” Cosgrove says.

That grabbed the attention of several industry players, including Haim Saban, who enlisted Cosgrove to help launch the Fox Family Worldwide joint venture in 1998, and Shell, who hired him at TV Guide Channel in 2004.

“When I came to TV Guide, it was just scrolling channel listings. Jeff gave me the best challenge you could have, which is ‘Do what you want. Tell me what you want to do and then let’s figure out how to do it,’” Cosgrove says.

Cosgrove sought to make TV Guide Channel “the center of TV on TV.” He oversaw the creation of an in-house production unit, live unit and studio operation and enlisted talent to feature on the channel’s new live programming. Under his leadership, the network experienced year-over-year ratings growth for the first time in its history, as well as all-time ratings highs for its content and a robust advertising sellout.

“TV Guide Channel was very much about taking old technology and turning it into something new—a real channel,” Shell says. “So [Cosgrove’s] new position [with the joint venture] is similar, in that he’s delivering a technology to people and helping them watch it in a different way. He’s very good at rethinking what’s new.”

Cosgrove attributes this skill to his ability to stay flexible. “I think you have to come into these things with an open mind and a willingness to evolve what you think—sometimes very quickly. There’s things you didn’t know—the things nobody knew,” he says, admitting that 3D’s chickenor- egg struggle with content and technology has made the joint venture the biggest challenge of his career. “It’s not easy by any means, but it’s fun because we’re trying to carve a new path.”

That new path will initially feature the same sort of sports and nature programming that originally drove HD, though Cosgrove hopes to introduce content such as concerts and even news coverage into the 3D mix.

“[2011] is really the year where 3D is going to blossom,” Cosgrove says. “The technology is finally there, and we’re coming out with the content. So this feels like the year where it’s going to start to explode in a meaningful way.”

Joint ventures and start-ups aren’t the only way Cosgrove gets his thrills. Outside the office, he’s an avid runner, snowboarder and rock wall climber who enjoys spending time with his family and, naturally, watching a little 3D TV.

“I’m a big fan of some African wildlife series we’ve done,” he says. “Being able to see a lion close-up in 3D is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Most people won’t ever experience that in person, but in 3D—well, it’s awfully close!”

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