Stranger in a Cable Land

Days after a business trip to Africa,
Billy Campbell flips through his photo album as if it were a family vacation. In one shot, he's white-water rafting down the Nile River. In another, he talks to Ugandan schoolkids in crisp, blue uniforms. Animal trainers calm three tigers long enough for Campbell to pose in yet another. A former broadcast and TV studio exec, he used to read scripts about adventure like this. Now, as president of Discovery's 14 U.S. networks, visiting exotic locales is part of the job description.

Campbell is on a bit of a safari himself, having left the comfortable world of Hollywood for the competitive wilds of cable TV. In his Hollywood days, he worked on lavish multimillion-dollar series like ER and Everybody Loves Raymond.
Now he's hunting for TV magic at under $200,000 an episode. His new territory ranges from flagship Discovery Channel and TLC to fledgling digital networks Science Channel and Discovery Times.

In two years at Discovery Networks, he has disturbed the natural order, raising some concerns that he will Hollywood-ize the company's quality cable channels. A half dozen high-level executives have exited during his tenure, including the general managers of Animal Planet, Travel Channel and Discovery Health and the head of marketing. Some of the departures, Campbell concedes, were over differences on strategic direction.

Going forward, he faces the same challenge as many maturing cable networks: how to maintain the brand while luring new audiences with non-traditional programming. Over at A&E, for example, Growing Up Gotti isn't exactly highbrow fare, but the show is attractive to the young viewers that advertisers covet. In the same way, No Opportunity Wasted isn't exactly the standard Discovery documentary: It's a new reality show where participants get three days and $3,000 to live out their dream—such as river-rafting in Peru. MasterCard sponsors the adventure.

To liven up Discovery's channels, Campbell has made engaging personalities and lighter non-scripted shows a priority, as in Discovery Channel's gear-head reality shows American Chopper
and Monster Garage. He's also tapping his Hollywood connections with stars. "Almost all of them have passion projects," he says. Cycling star Lance Armstrong will host several health specials, and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston lent their talents to a pair of Animal Planet specials on grizzly bears, Growing Up Grizzly. Julia Roberts hosted a Discovery Health special about Rett Syndrome, a disease that has stricken one of her friends. Campbell, says Eli Holzman, a producer who worked with him at Miramax Television, "can take larger-than-life personalities and artfully impact their projects and bring out the best."

And Campbell has brought his broadcast experience and advertising connections to bear in the cable universe. Thanks to his broadcast-TV ties, he lured former CBS ad-sales chief Joe Abruzzese to Discovery—a move that has helped attract more ad dollars and deeper relationships with advertisers.

His career started with a chance meeting with former Capital Cities chief Dan Burke. When Campbell was an MBA student at Harvard University, Burke, a Harvard alum, addressed Campbell's class. Campbell was so impressed, he stayed around to chat. The admiration was mutual; Burke and partner Tom Murphy plucked Campbell from Cambridge, Mass., and shipped him out to Los Angeles to work at newly acquired ABC. He was supposed to be a bridge between the suits in New York and the creative execs on the West Coast, but Campbell displayed an unexpected knack for development.

Even after stints at Warner Bros. and CBS as Les Moonves' No. 2 from 1995 to 1998, Campbell never quite fit the Hollywood mold. He had little taste for Hollywood schmoozing. He favored starched white shirts and dark suits over West Coast casual and never lost his Southern twang.

Recalls former ABC marketing exec Mark Zarkarian, who helped Campbell learn the broadcast business, "He couldn't have been more of a stranger in a strange land."

So far, Campbell seems OK in the cable jungle. Discovery Channel's ratings have improved since he arrived (although the third quarter was generally flat at 1.1 million viewers), and more young men are tuning in. More problematic: TLC's viewership slid 30% in the third quarter to about 800,000 viewers. After climbing into the top 10 among cable channels last year, the network has fallen out of the top 20.

When Campbell took over Discovery Networks, though, his Hollywood roots raised eyebrows across the cable industry. The only non-scripted show he had ever worked on was Miramax's filmmaker reality show Project Greenlight.
Would this West Coast suit be at home in Silver Spring, Md.?

By picking Campbell to succeed Johnathan Rodgers, Discovery Chairman John Hendricks and now-CEO Judith McHale passed over Discovery's long-time programming chief John Ford. Industry veterans worried that Campbell would glamorize the company. "It was the most defining moment in the direction of the company," says one former Discovery executive. McHale says the fuss was unfounded: "He understands the importance of storytelling and good creative."

Because the Discovery channels are regarded with special status on cable—they teach viewers something—Campbell bristles over accusations that he has sexed them up. Of reality fare, he says, "These shows are authentic, and the people are experts." Blue-chip specials are still a priority. Coming in January, for example, history special Last Days of Pompeii re-creates the volcanic eruption that destroyed the legendary Roman city, and Walking With Spacemen, for second quarter 2005, uses computer animation to take viewers on a futuristic space odyssey to Venus, Jupiter and Pluto.

Advertisers seem to like Discovery's direction. "The Discovery brand is strong enough and broad enough that you can do a lot under the umbrella," says Starcom Media Entertainment Associate Director Kathryn Thomas.

At TLC, veteran Roger Marmet, interim general manager when Campbell arrived, is leading the effort to revive the channel. To fill other empty slots, Campbell hired Jane Root, former head of BBC2, as Discovery Channel general manager and brought in ex-Fox Family chief Maureen Smith to run Animal Planet. Other execs have shifted jobs: Former Discovery Channel production chief Steve Burns is now general manager of Science Channel, and former Discovery Channel General Manager Clarke Bunting, a 19-year Discovery veteran, oversees 10 of the smaller networks.

In 2003, Campbell's first full year, revenue grew a healthy 14.2% for the four core analog networks—Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet and Travel Channel—to $1.485 billion, according to Morgan Stanley media analyst Richard Bilotti. But the growth is forecast to slow to 9.9% in 2004. (Bilotti predicts 31% growth for the digital networks, but their revenue is much smaller, around $70 million last year.)

Campbell's most pressing concern is TLC. A year ago, Trading Spaces was a top-10 cable program pulling up other TLC shows. He blames a glut of lifestyle shows on TV (28 home-makeover shows by his count) for pulling viewers away. Starcom's Thomas, however, says TLC relied too heavily on Trading Spaces. "They Millionaire'd it," she says, referring to ABC's decision to overplay Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. TLC cloned its own hit with shows like While You Were Out and Trading Spaces Family.

In the future, TLC will be mining new genres, such as reality shows about small business, real estate and feng shui. Says Campbell, "It is critical to be there first."