Life Looks Good on Billy Campbell’s Planet

Jan 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Billy Campbell and his mother were watching “Today” on NBC together shortly after New Year’s Day, though they were many miles apart. The president of Discovery Networks had just returned to his home in Washington from Greenville, S.C., where he grew up and where his mother and father still live. He and his mother watch “Today” every day and were on the phone chatting when they first saw it.
“She goes, `I’m watching it,”’ Mr. Campbell recalled. “I said, `What do you think?”’
“She said, `What’s he doing?’ I said, `I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve heard of it.’ Then we spent part of the day talking about it, going back and forth. I always think she’s a great barometer of what’s real.”
What they were watching, along with much of the world, was “Crocodile Hunter” star Steve Irwin dangling food in front of a crocodile while grasping his infant son in his other arm. It was replayed from CNN to local TV generating outrage and accusations of child endangerment.
By the time Mr. Campbell met with TV critics last week in Los Angeles, the charges had reverberated around the globe. It was a serious matter because the Australian adventurer under fire has become a major star for Animal Planet, one of 14 Discovery networks overseen by Mr. Campbell.
“I told Steve, `I don’t understand what you did. I wouldn’t have done it. I hope you never do it again,”’ Mr. Campbell said. “He really is so humble. His first comment to me was, `Tell your mum I’m sorry.’ I said, `Don’t worry about my mother.’ He said, `No, I’m mortified.”’
“I support him,” Mr. Campbell told the assembled critics. “I think he made a mistake. We all make mistakes. I think it’s time to move on.”
It was a rare setback for Discovery, which since its founding in 1985 by John Hendricks, who remains chairman, has grown into a global operation with 14 U.S. networks and 33 overseas networks, which collectively reach some 700 million viewers in 155 countries.
Mr. Campbell was recruited by Mr. Hendricks and Discovery chief operating officer Judith McHale a year and a half ago. It was a major change for Mr. Campbell, who previously held top posts at CBS, ABC, Warner Bros. and Miramax, where the Harvard grad was associated with such shows as “ER,” “China Beach,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Project Greenlight.”
Now he oversees a group of niche networks including TLC, The Science Channel, Discovery Kids and the Travel Channel, whose “World Poker Tour” show, greenlighted by Mr. Campbell, has launched a new genre of gaming shows.
Television, Mr. Campbell said, “is a hit-driven business. I point to Comedy Central. Did you even think about watching it before `South Park’ came along? It just takes one great show, one personality to get people watching. That’s what Steve Irwin is about. He got people watching the channel. So that’s what I’m trying to do [with all the channels]-bring in more personality.”
A hit such as “Trading Spaces” on TLC invigorates an entire channel but also invites competition. “If there are 100 networks, 99 have called and said, `Please, can we [rerun] “Trading Spaces?””’ Mr. Campbell said. “It is always `No.’ Our MSOs and viewers come to us for a unique experience.”
He will say yes when it means revenue and increased exposure. That is why you will see a “World Poker Tour” marathon on NBC on Super Bowl Sunday. “When it makes sense I pursue partnerships. But I don’t need them,” Mr. Campbell said. “I keep telling the guys at the broadcast networks who call, `You act like it’s 10 years ago, but I don’t need you. I’m in 80 million homes. I’ve got a hit show. I’m just doing fine.”’
His focus, he explained, is on growing the channels, building each brand and finding additional exposure and revenue. At present that includes developing a major Internet presence, merchandising and more.
It may feature cute fuzzy creatures, but Discovery is no patsy. It is known for being a tough deal-maker, taking all rights to shows it airs and keeping costs well below what CBS or NBC spend on a show.
He said broadcasters are in trouble because they pay too much for stars and shows even as their audience shrinks. “The old model doesn’t work, especially now that the foreign market isn`t paying like they did,” he explained. “There’s not enough money. That’s why they’ve been forced to put on `Bachelorette 8′ and shows like that over and over.”
Mr. Campbell lures celebrities such as actors Brad Pitt and his wife, Jennifer Aniston, and “Titanic” director James Cameron not with tons of money, but by offering them opportunities to experience nature, as Ms. Aniston did as host of Animal Planet’s “Growing Up Grizzly 2.”
He has also stepped up to improve his brand on occasion. For instance, Animal Planet lured naturalist Jane Goodall away from National Geographic. And since his arrival, Mr. Campbell has reinvigorated Discovery franchises such as “Shark Week” and “Monster Garage.”
On the ad side he recruited Joe Abruzzese, his pal from CBS, to head sales and work on closing the cost-per-thousand gap-the premium paid to networks for ads compared with what cable is paid. Discovery has also added more sponsorships and cross-platform deals with big advertisers.
Discovery has had its share of flop shows as well as hits. Its advantage is in being a private company (owned by Liberty Media, Cox, Advance/Newhouse and Mr. Hendricks). Discovery can invest in shows and new technology like high-definition TV without the pressures a public company has to generate revenue quickly. That keeps the focus on doing it right, Mr. Campbell said: “Quality does win. But sometimes you have to be patient. You have to market effectively to cut through the clutter with 200 channels. But if you have that, you can grow.”
And that’s no croc.