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Discovery Puts Its Faith in Science

Apr 30, 2007  •  Post A Comment

While much of the recent news from parent Discovery Communications lately has been about reorganization and job cuts, Discovery Channel President and General Manager Jane Root is building her staff and getting ready to spend more on programming.

One key new hire is former TV Guide and ABC Family executive Tom Cosgrove as senior VP and general manager of the Science Channel, part of Ms. Root’s portfolio.

“We’re really building a robust team here,” she said.

Ms. Root was given new authority by David Zaslav, who was named president and CEO of Discovery Communications in December. In order to revitalize the company, Mr. Zaslav in January instituted a reorganization that swept out several senior executives but gave added responsibilities to the managers who run the networks.

Those network heads are now in charge of production, development, marketing, communications and new media for their brands.

Ms. Root has overseen a turnaround at the company’s flagship channel, which ranked seventh among all ad-supported cable networks in total prime-time viewers during the first quarter.

Two years ago, the Discovery Channel suffered double-digit declines in ratings, but it rebounded in 2006. Programs such as “Planet Earth” and “Deadliest Catch” helped boost the channel’s ratings 15 percent among adults 25 to 54 in the first quarter.

“We feel like we’re really hitting our stride with the network,” Ms. Root said.

A few years ago, she said, there was a sense that factual-based networks were old-fashioned, but this is an era in which knowledge is good.

“One of the things we’re saying here is it’s sexy to be smart,” she said.

The huge production “Planet Earth” has been the top-rated cable show on Sunday nights, drawing more than 50 million viewers in total since its debut March 25.

Now Ms. Root is able to hire and spend more money on original programming, particularly programming the company owns. She wouldn’t say how much more program spending has been authorized, other than that it’s “many millions of dollars.”

Adding responsibility for Discovery Channel’s programming are Jeff Hasler, who was promoted from VP development to senior VP, production and development. Reporting to Mr. Hasler are Mary Donahue and Liz Brach, named VPs of creative content. Ms. Donahue, an executive producer on “Man vs. Wild” and “Going Tribal,” will focus on talent-driven programming; Ms. Brach, formerly director of development, will focus on genre-based series and programming.

Discovery also moved Deana Edwards from director of program planning to VP of integrated programming and promotions. Earlier, Doug Coblens was named chief operating officer of the channel and Discovery Communications’ executive VP of legal and business affairs.

“This is really a big vote of support from the new management of the company in what we’re doing,” Ms. Root said. “We feel like we’re both more efficient and more creative. It’s a home run.”

While Science Channel is smaller than Discovery, it is growing even faster. Ranked No. 51 among cable networks in prime-time viewers, the network was up 35 percent in the first quarter.

“With Science Channel, we’ve got ownership of a genre that’s about the future,” Ms. Root said. She said the channel will offer depth but also exuberance, with programming about “neutrinos and quarks and black holes, but we’ll also tell you about the incredible technology behind the next generation of Japanese cell phones.”