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Maverick: David Zaslav, Discovery Communications (US)

When people talk about elections and new administrations, they often stress the importance of the first 100 days - that brief window where politicians are given latitude, before things inevitably break down into politics once again. Looking at the first few months of David Zaslav's tenure at Discovery Communications, one can't help but be struck by the comparison. This is an exec with a lot on his to-do list.
July 1, 2007

When people talk about elections and new administrations, they often stress the importance of the first 100 days – that brief window where politicians are given latitude, before things inevitably break down into politics once again. Looking at the first few months of David Zaslav’s tenure at Discovery Communications, one can’t help but be struck by the comparison. This is an exec with a lot on his to-do list.

The new president and CEO of Discovery arrived near the end of 2006 to take up the mantle from outgoing head Judith McHale. Zaslav made the leap from NBC Universal Cable and Domestic TV and New Media Distribution, arriving to take the reigns of a company in need of a coherent direction – a condition partially caused, some speculate, by unhealthy internal chemistry. (Realscreen has penciled in stories about the caustic corporate culture developing at Discovery several times in the past few years, only to kill them when no execs would go on the record.)

But if the chemistry was out of balance before, it shouldn’t be an issue anymore. Among those gone from the roster since Zaslav’s arrival are: Billy Campbell, Discovery Networks US president; Dawn McCall, Discovery Networks International president (both of whom were linked to McHale’s vacant position in early rumors); David Abraham, TLC president and GM; Maureen Smith, Animal Planet Media GM; and others, including familiar faces such as Discovery Communications senior EVP for strategy and development Don Baer, who left shortly before Zaslav arrived.

What’s left is what Zaslav has described as a ‘lean and aggressive organization.’ Jane Root became EVP and GM of Discovery and Discovery Science. Marjorie Kaplan became president and GM of Animal Planet Media and Discovery Kids Media, a new unit comprised of Discovery’s family targeted fare. The new president/CEO looks willing to place more power in the hands of fewer people, and allow them to take the risks required of a broadcaster looking to remain relevant to its viewers.

And the shake ups don’t end there. In early 2007, Zaslav cut about 200 jobs, mostly in education, corporate affairs and communications, and followed that in May by amputating Discovery’s retail operations, affecting about 1,000 employees worldwide – or about 25% of the company’s workforce. (Sad news, but the retail arm never made any sense in the first place.)

May also saw Discovery give its Travel Channel brand a one-way ticket out of town, offering it (along with US$1.28 billion in cash) to Cox Communications for its 25% stake in DCI. Rumors have Zaslav in discussions with US net CBS over a 50% ownership stake in the Discovery Times Channel, the same stake the New York Times optioned back to DCI when it decided it wanted out of the game.

The results of all this heavy handed tinkering? Success, of course. In the recent upfronts, Root was able to report that the Discovery Channel had an 11% growth in household ratings in the first quarter, year-over-year, and a 23% rise in primetime, while also lifting its A 25-to-54 share by 18%. The channel also had its youngest quarter ever, dropping its median age to 36. Discovery, after many years in the deep weeds, looks to be back on brand.

If all the Discovery nets return to their strengths and begin to fulfill their brand promises once again, expect the surge to be company wide. There is understandable concern with one of Zaslav’s recent moves – that of bringing Angela Shapiro-Mathes from Fox TV Studios (the dreaded F-word) to run TLC – but time will tell.

One real question remains, however: after so many moves in a scant six months, what do you do for an encore?

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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