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Zaslav Puts Mark on Discovery

Make no doubt about it: Discovery Communications Inc. now is David Zaslav's house.

Three months after being named DCI's CEO — and six weeks after walking in the door — Zaslav embedded his fingerprints on its future with a sweeping reorganization of executive power. Zaslav is throwing out the centralized business-structure playbook of his predecessor, Judith McHale, for what he defines as a more streamlined and lean hierarchy, with more executives reporting directly to him.

Out is Discovery Networks U.S. president Billy Campbell, who was considered a serious internal candidate for Zaslav's position. All top executives who reported to Campbell now report to Zaslav. These include DCI advertising sales president Joe Abruzzese, DCI affiliate-sales head Bill Goodwyn and Discovery Channel president and general manager Jane Root.

The changes come as Discovery's main channels recover from years of falling viewership. The flagship Discovery Channel went from an average of 1.4 million viewers in primetime in 2001 to less than 1 million in 2005. TLC fell from 1.2 million in 2003, to about 726,000 in 2005, according to Nielsen Media Research.


Last year, there were signs of recovery: Discovery Channel's viewership jumped 14%; TLC was up 12%; Travel Channel increased by 5% and Animal Planet grew 6%. Zaslav's moves, which he said would enhance the networks' performances, were taken positively, inside and outside the company.

“While the significant shake-up could potentially cause some disruption in the near term, we believe the new management could be a positive for Discovery, providing creativity and new energy to the company, while instilling a financial discipline to the creative process,” Merrill Lynch media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen said in a research note.

And Zaslav says he's not done reshaping Discovery's future.

“This was the first step in terms of setting up a structure and leadership team,” Zaslav said. “The messages I wanted to send were clear: we're de-layering — we're going to try to have a lean culture that's really accountable for performance.”

Four other top executives are leaving the company amid the shake-up. They are: Animal Planet Media GM Maureen Smith, Discovery Networks International president Dawn McCall, TLC president David Abraham and DCI senior vice president of human resources Pandit Wright.

Zaslav now has several major holes to fill in his organization:

TLC general manager: The company is conducting a search for a replacement for Abraham, who will return to the United Kingdom in April.

Emerging Network Group chief: Discovery is looking for an executive to head up its newly created emerging network group, which consists of digital networks The Science Channel, Military Channel, Discovery Times Channel, Discovery Home Channel and Discovery HD Theater.

Business Development chief: This position centralizes corporate business-development activities and leads the team devoted to analyzing and determining growth priorities.

Senior business managers: Similar in duties to a chief operating officer, one will be hired for each network division: Discovery Channel, TLC, Discovery Travel Media, Discovery Health Media and Animal Planet Media.

Zaslav said he hopes to have all positions filled within three to six months.

One former DCI executive was surprised at the “quality and quantity” of changes within the organization and concluded that most of those discharged were sergeants of McHale, who left the company this past December.

Nevertheless, she said the change will be beneficial to Discovery in the long run.

“Giving brand ownership to each of the channels is important and will benefit the company,” she said.


Under prior regime, in which the marketing, programming and public-relations departments of TLC, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel and other networks reported directly to Campbell. Now, those operations are under the purview of each network general manager, who will report directly to Zaslav. What that means for executives like Discovery Channel's Root is that they have the flexibility — and the responsibility — for building their respective networks.

“There was a very centralized structure here,” Zaslav said. “Under the new structure, the [network general managers] are in charge of programming, promotion, marketing and communication — really effectively running their own businesses with a clear P&L and with a sales group that's incented to sell their products.”

That's a welcome change, according to executives within the company. “I think the changes will give us a greater voice in what happens with the network,” said one Discovery executive.

Other moves as part of the reorganization:

  • Marjorie Kaplan was named president and GM of Animal Planet Media and Discovery Kids Media, a new unit that includes the company's family-focused networks.
  • Former MTV Networks International chief operating officer Greg Ricca was named president and CEO of Discovery Networks International. He replaces McCall.
  • Zaslav's former NBC colleague, Adria Alpert-Romm, was named senior executive VP of human resources. She replaces 12-year veteran Wright, who was the chief architect of Discovery's relocation two years ago from Bethesda, Md., to its new headquarters in Silver Spring.
  • Bill Goodwyn was promoted to president of domestic distribution and enterprises. Discovery Education, run by president Steve Sidel, will report to Goodwyn, Zaslav said.
  • The company formed a new Discovery Studios unit that will house Discovery Production Group, Discovery Films and Discovery Creative Resources. Clark Bunting was named president of Discovery Studios.
  • DCI legal counsel Mark Hollinger was promoted to president of global business and operations.

Zaslav is also turning to consultants to help restructure the company. Former NBC and Sanford C. Bernstein consultant Tom Wolzien and former CBS Paramount Television president of worldwide television distribution Joel Berman were signed as consultants.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.