David Zaslav, President and CEO, Discovery Communications

Jan 12, 2010  •  Post A Comment


TVWeek: You’re starting your fourth year running Discovery. You’ve done an exemplary job.

David Zaslav: It really is a team effort, and I know you’ve spoken to everybody, and you get a sense of that. I often get the credit,  but I’d say that Joe Abruzzese, for example, was up when everybody else in the industry was down [this past year in ad sales]. And Bill Goodwyn gets us carried, 73 channels here in the US.

TVWeek: What is it that drew you to come over to Discovery?

Zaslav: John Hendricks himself was what really inspired me, back in 1986, to get into this business when I was a young lawyer. I had great admiration for John. I got to see what he was trying to do, and I got a first hand look at a real entrepreneur.

TVWeek: Was that because when you were a lawyer, he engaged you to work for him? Could you explain that a little bit?

Zaslav: I was at my law firm working at a firm, LeBouef Lamb, and a partner came in who had been the general counsel at Warner Cable. Now a federal court judge. And he knew John very well and he knew the people at MTV, and he was representing MTV and Discovery. So, I got put on one of the Discovery deals, and I got to know John, I got to know the team in Bethesda, which is where we were at the time.

And then Judith McHale, who was the general counsel, went out on maternity leave and John and I were getting on very well and they cut a deal with my firm and Discovery, where they lent me to John for a period of time while Judith was out. I got to see his creative and programming vision, how he planned to market it, build it. Really, the good news was I was incredibly inspired, as a 25 year old, about how great this business could be. I had never met anybody like John Hendricks, he’s incredible.

The bad news was when I went back to this law firm, I just felt like, my god, that was so much fun and so great. I had to figure out how to get into that business, the cable business. So I ended up, really based on that, at NBC [cable] for 20 years. But throughout those years John Hendricks was a great mentor to me. We spent a lot of time talking, we’d have dinner from time to time, we were on the board of TiVo together.

John was really the first to understand the power of High Definition. He was talking about launching an HD channel and he said, you have to do this for NBC. You have to. It’s going to be huge. First you have to look at it. And you’ll understand why this will be so powerful. I ended up launching an HD channel for NBC. Nobody wanted to do it, and Bob Wright said, if you want to do this you’re going to have to pay for it. The model doesn’t look like it’s going to work. And I just remember thinking, I hope John Hendricks is right! And of course, he was. He always is. So it was John, and on a very practical base, it was a chance to work with someone who I really admired. I had the greatest respect for him, and he was a great friend.

But two, I looked at Discovery and, as a company, it was an incredible platform company. I thought it had the greatest potential. They had 13 channels through the US, an average of five channels in 173 countries. I remember going home and taking a look at my channel guide and counting the number of channels. How many channels does Time Warner have here in the US? How many channels does Disney have? Does Viacom have? And I was thinking as strong of a company Discovery Communications is, they can make those channels, those brands, stronger. The programming more compelling. They may be the number one nonfiction media company in the world, but they can even be bigger. Discovery seems like a great opportunity to work with John Hendricks and build something bigger.

TVWeek: And certainly, since you’ve come over there, you’ve obviously shaken up a lot of things and accomplished a lot in a relatively a short period of time. Did you feel that you had to do a lot in a short period of time because the ownership status was changing?

Zaslav: Bob Miron [one of the owners of Discovery] has been a great friend to me for 20 years, had a simple mission: Long term growth. We want this to be a bigger and stronger company over the long term. This was exactly what John Malone’s vision was, and I met John 20 years ago when I was at NBC, and we did our first deal around CNBC. And so, you had a board, Bob Miron, John Malone and John Hendricks, focused on one thing. Not quarter to quarter money, not near term ratings, but strong brand and long term growth domestically and around the world. Which really positioned us to have great permission because neither Bob Miron, John Malone or John Hendricks have never pressured us for a quarter or for a rating or about a show.

It’s always been about the bigger mission of building a great brand, making this a bigger, healthier, stronger company. So that really gave us, as a team, an opportunity. And also, we were very clear from the beginning that we thought we needed to make a lot of changes to grow. That we really need to reimagine each of the brands.

I remember a time when Discovery wasn’t just the most watched brand, it was the most admired brand. And it was a sense of incredible confidence that the people that worked at Discovery had, knowing that they worked for Discovery, which stood for not just great programming, but for a higher purpose: Satisfying curiosity.

And some of that patina had fallen off, and part of that was because they started to reach out for broader ratings.

But when I got to Discovery [in January, 2007], one of the reasons I got there was because there was a strong feeling that some of the biker programming and crime and forensics and tattoo programming, even though it was getting good ratings, wasn’t where the great future of Discovery lay. And so we came in there with a mandate from the board. To get back to what is Discovery at its best. What is TLC at its best. Animal Planet. And the understanding that some of the brands that we had may not be worth investing and growing. And we’d work with the board to figure out which ones we were going to fight to build and grow around the world, and which were the ones that we were going to let go because they didn’t have the same opportunity for us.

TVWeek: The managers here say one of your strengths is that you encourage them to take risks, and you don’t go ballistic if the risks fail.

Zaslav: When you look at the challenges that we have and the feedback we get, we have great platforms. But if in five years you look back and you can talk about the five or six or seven great brands we have, that different people around the US and around the world feel nourished by and excited to watch, then we will have really been successful.

And at the core of that transition from being a great platform company to being a great content company is great creators. And in order for creators to be successful, for creative leadership to be successful, you have to have the confidence to expand the brand, challenge the brand and to fail.

Going back to the mandate from the board, we’re not being measured by every show and by every quarter. We’re really on this long term journey.

Take Majorie Kaplan–she has had two years of experimenting with the Animal Planet brand in a great broad way. She’s really just beginning, and through her, we’re really getting to understand the opportunity that Animal Planet has and our chances of building something strong around Animal Planet are better now.

So I think you’ve got to really support the creators and encourage the
swings and you have to celebrate the failures. We’re in a crazy business where 20 percent of what you do is successful. And if you could keep it at 20, you could probably be pretty successful in this business.

TVWeek: That is absolutely right. You look at people in the syndication business and it’s not even that high. So you’re absolutely right.

Zaslav: To me, I always say, if I’m clicking around and the channel is on mute, and I see that certain program on Discovery or on Animal Planet or on TLC, there‘s really only two questions to which I want answered. Will I recognize that programming as being something that belongs there? We have to be on brand. We have to be on brand and we shouldn’t put anything on ever just to get a rating. ‘Cause in the long term, by being on brand, we’re going to have a stronger audience, we can get a better CPM, we’ll be a steadier and sturdier business.

And two, if there’s something about it that’s really interesting, where I unhit the mute button to say, what is that? What is that? And that’s our challenge every day. Marjorie had a show, "Dark Days in Monkey City."dark days.jpg

It was a cross between a comic and a cartoon and a real life program. It was pretty dark, had a look that I’d never see before on TV. And it had a great story. And if you were clicking by, you definitely would say, what is that?

TVWeek: I know exactly what you’re talking about. One of my quintessential channel surfing moments actually involves Discovery. And that was the day, clicking around the channel, that all of a sudden I see boats out in what looked like the freezing cold, and these fisherman were battling the elements and I just had to stop and turn up the sound and see what it was. And it was Deadliest Catch. Its that moment when you stop your channel surfing and say to yourself "I’ve got to see what the hell this is."

Zaslav: Yes. What the hell is that?

TVWeek: Could you talk a little bit about coming up with the idea to approach Oprah about a channel?

Zaslav: There are so many channels now, and between the channels and VOD and multiplexing and P\pay, it’s just harder and harder to build an audience. For us that’s good and bad. It’s good for us on Discovery and TLC and Animal Planet, where we have strong constituency, but it’s tough when you are trying to build a brand. And Discovery Health was doing really just okay. We spent a lot of time looking at what we can do with that channel that could really have a chance of garnering a meaningful audience. And we were really struggling.

Now, if you think about what Oprah is, one, it’s maybe the strongest brand in media. And she stands for a very simple idea, but it aligns with our values as a company. We’re about satisfying curiosity. Oprah, the hub brand, really stands for her mission, which is this idea of living your best life. Tools for your life. Moving forward in your life in a positive way. And [we thought]  that that brand and that mission could be a really compelling cable network.

[ We realized that a lot of was expressed in Oprah’s] magazine which is really about health and wellness and life and relationships. But all within an Oprah positive approach. It became, and still is, one of the most successful magazines, really from a standing start, ever.

When I sat down for the first time with Oprah and pitched her this idea for this network, the power of that idea just led us through. From the very beginning it was very clear that this channel was going to happen. Oprah connected with it immediately. The more we talked about it the more we thought this could be a really strong voice in the marketplace.

If you think about cable, if you can be a unique voice [it can work very well.] Comedy Central is a unique voice. CNBC is a unique voice. Syfy is a unique voice. And there is nobody in this space, in this idea of living your best life. And with a great brand like Oprah, all of her energy [will be focused on this, especially since] she’s going to be leaving broadcast and coming to spend time with us, with this cable network. And now we have Oprah.com. We think it’s going to be fantastic, and with the cable industry it’s going to be a huge win. We’re bringing one of the greatest brands and greatest talents as well as a bunch of the talent that Oprah has developed–we’re bringing that to the table, and we’ll see it in January 2011.

TVWeek: I’m curious, did you just  have a revelation in the middle of the night and said, gee I’ve got to talk to Oprah? Did you know her?

Zaslav: I didn’t know her. My wife loves the magazine, so she has the magazine and it had a number of the little stickies in it for different things. I remember reading through it. At the same time we had this perplexing problem with Health, whose program description was health, fitness, wellness. And reading through the magazine came relationships. This is a sexy, compelling version of a health network that could really, with Oprah, and with that brand, could really be a big channel. So that was just from looking at the magazine. And Oprah didn’t know me. We sat down together and when we left that day, I think the two of us knew that this idea was going to be very powerful. There was really never a moment that we didn’t think that it wouldn’t happen.

liguoriB.jpgTVWeek: One of you highest profile new hires is Peter Liguori as your new COO. What do you think he’ll bring to the network?

Zaslav: First, I think it’s a great win for us to have such a strong creative talent in the tent with us. We’re trying to accelerate our progress in telling great stories, building great brands, and building our audiences around the world.

So Peter, he’s maybe the best marketer in the media business. He’s also got a great sense of programming, he’s also a very strong operating executive. So he’s a triple threat. And for us, as we look at how do we build, how do we make Animal Planet stronger? Discovery bigger around the world? Can we take TLC now, the number five network in the world for women 18 through 34, can we take TLC around the world? What countries would that brand work in? Could we get that brand even bigger? It was an ambitious swing to get Peter and I think that he’s going to make us more ambitious. As we take this journey, I think, when you look at people like Henry Schleiff, and Laura Michalchyshyn, and Eileen O’Neill and Marjorie Kaplan, this is part of the creative team. And bringing Peter in as our chief operating office, we reinforce that creativity is the key to our success.

We’re not bringing in a cost out specialist. We’re not bringing in a great operating business leader, although Peter is a very good, very strong operating business leader. We’re leaning into Peter because he’s a great creator. And I think that he can help us be even bigger. And he’s excited about it. He pulls a lot of energy.#

To read our interview with Bruce Campbell, President, Digital Media and Corporate Development for Discovery, click here.

To read our interview with Bill Goodwyn, Discovery’s President, Domestic Distribution and Enterprises, click here.

To read our interview with Henry Schleiff, Discovery’s President and General Manager of Investigation Discovery, Military Channel and HD Theater, click here.

To read our interview with Marjorie Kaplan, President and General Manager, Animal Planet Media Enterprises, click here.

To read our interview with Laura Michalchyshyn, President and General Manager, Planet Green, Discovery Health and FitTV, click here.

To read our interview with Joe Abruzzese, President of Discovery Advertising Sales, click here

To read our interview with Eileen O’Neill, President and General Manager of TLC, click here

To read our interview with Clark Bunting, President and General Manager of the Discovery Channel, click here

To read our interview with Carole Tomko, President and General Manager of Discovery Studios, click here.

To read our interview with Mark Hollinger, President and CEO, Discovery Networks International, click here.


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  2. Sarah Palin`s Alaska?
    It is not the Alaska of modern enlightened people who understand the connections of nature!!!!!!!!!
    Antje Götter

  3. Discovery Communications — the parent company of The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, TLC and others — known for wildlife-focused programs — it is anti the interests of wildlife to give Sarah Palin airtime when she is know for her kill the wildlife in Alaska agenda!
    Please reconsider giving her airtime!
    Grayslake, Illinois
    Age: 65 and a grandmother

  4. I have read with dismay that Discovery Communications if planning a series with Sarah Palin called Alaska. Most people by now know how she stands on nature and the protection of Alaska’s beautiful creatures. If her show goes ahead, I will cancel all of my discovery communication channels – even animal planet! I thought you company stood for the betterment of the earth and all animals on it

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    I enjoyed reading this quantity newsletter- thanks.

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