Discovery’s gain is CBS’s loss

Oct 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

CBS staffers were said to be stunned last week when Joe Abruzzese, president of CBS network sales, announced he was leaving to head ad sales at Discovery Networks.
And well they should have been. If Leslie Moonves has been the key person in reviving CBS’s schedule in recent years, Mr. Abruzzese has been the linchpin that helped the network bring in billions of dollars in ad revenues.
Will CBS survive the loss of Mr. Abruzzese? Of course.
But what CBS is losing is the most popular-by far-chief of ad sales at any of the networks. And in a business that is as relationship-oriented as the one between the buyers and sellers along Madison Avenue, that’s not a little thing.
The genius of Joey-as he is affectionately known up and down the avenue-is that his orientation has been primarily outside, though he has also been very effective in managing inside, both down and up.
Ask any senior buyer and he or she will tell you that with Joey his word is his bond. Furthermore, he is known for his ability to see things from the buyer’s point of view, and understanding-really understanding-how to compromise and accommodate, so sales transactions have generally ended up being a win-win for marketers and CBS.
So then why, after 22 years, would he bolt?
A fresh challenge? Sure. And he’s said to be getting more than $1 million annually for the next three years. And a deal to have him head up all of ad sales for CBS parent Viacom’s TV properties was never finalized.
But clearly something else was going on. Or, more specifically, someone else.
Mel Karmazin.
Mr. Karmazin, a salesman par excellence himself, really set in motion Mr. Abruzzese’s departure about five years ago. That’s when CBS and Mr. Karmazin, then the CEO of the network, changed the terms of the network’s very generous pension policy. Whether or not an employee was grandfathered in under the old pension plan depended on a formula that combined an employee’s age and length of service. Mr. Abruzzese, it is said, just missed the cut.
Furthermore, Mr. Karmazin has forced Mr. Abruzzese to play hardball the past few years in various sales situations. Buyers say a number of CBS sales staffers have been unhappy with this state of affairs, but that Mr. Abruzzese, especially, bristled at this imposition on both his style and his judgment.
Mr. Abruzzese, being the class guy he is, when asked at a press conference last week about Mr. Karmazin, was very politic: “Mel made me better at my job,” he said. Then he compared Mr. Karmazin to a football coach: “After practice you’re beaten up, but at the end of the day you’re a better football player.”
Mr. Karmazin, a class act himself when it comes to professional relationships, was said to be very generous in conversations with Mr. Abruzzese last week upon hearing of Mr. Abruzzese’s decision to leave, complimenting him on his fine work and years of service.
Mr. Moonves, understandably, was said to be more upset about Mr. Abruzzese’s departure. But that’s because it is Mr. Moonves’ tough task to replace Mr. Abruzzese.
Discovery is getting a truly world-class executive in Mr. Abruzzese. Whether he will be able to get Discovery that elusive broadcast cost-per-thousand is problematic, but that’s almost beside the point. He will bring in more business just based on the great relationships he has with media agencies and their clients.
Of course, what Mr. Abruzzese is hoping in the long run is that Discovery will be sold or go public, which would bring the company a largesse he would surely share in. CBS, already being a part of Viacom, did not have such prospects.
As Mr. Moonves goes about deciding with whom to replace Mr. Abruzzese, the best advice he could get would be to listen to Madison Avenue. CBS has a number of well-qualified internal candidates, such as JoAnn Ross, Scott McGraw and Mike Mandelker, to only name three. What Mr. Moonves needs to do is to take a page from Mr. Abruzzese’s book and listen to what CBS’s customers think. Find out what the consensus is outside Black Rock.
Then CBS will find a new ad sales chief in the winning tradition of Mr. Abruzzese.#
Chuck Ross is publisher and editorial director of Electronic Media.