Zaslav exits NBC to run Discovery

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NBC Universal suffered its second high-profile departure in as many days with the naming of its cable/ new-media chief David Zaslav as president and CEO of Discovery Communications Inc.

Zaslav will replace Judith McHale, who said in August that she will step down Dec. 1. Zaslav will take his new job early next year but will remain as president of NBC Universal Cable and Domestic TV and New Media Distribution for up to 90 days to finish projects.

The impending departure follows the announcement Wednesday that Randy Falco will leave as president of the NBC Universal Television Group to become chairman and CEO of Time Warner Inc.'s AOL unit. NBC sources said that neither Falco nor Zaslav's departures were anything but coincidence; Zaslav agreed.

"It's really a complete coincidence," Zaslav said Thursday. "It's odd, there's no question … but it's purely coincidental." He said that Wednesday's Discovery board meeting was long-scheduled.

NBC won't replace Falco's position, though it's still unclear what will happen when Zaslav leaves next year. There is no doubt that there will be a restructuring of the divisions under the NBCU 2.0 program that began to be implemented this month in the news division and will eventually encompass the entire company and lead to 700 job cuts and millions of dollars in annual savings as the company positions itself for the changing media marketplace.

It's possible that such executives as Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, Jean-Briac Perrette, senior vp new media at NBC Uni cable and Bridgette Baker, executive vp NBC Uni Cable, will take over some of Zaslav's duties.

"We have a very strong bench," said one NBC source who declined to be named.

An outside analyst, Nielsen Analytics senior vp and general manager Larry Gerbrandt, said he believed there wasn't anything else going on other than coincidence.

"Each (Falco and Zaslav) got offers they couldn't refuse," Gerbrandt said.

What happens in the future with NBC Uni's cable business — which includes USA, Bravo, Sci Fi Channel, CNBC and MSNBC — will hinge on the restructuring after Zaslav's move to Discovery. The cable operation has dual revenue streams — subscriber fees and advertising — but the question remains whether NBC Uni parent General Electric lumps the cable properties into the slow-growth category that GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt considers NBC itself. GE's influence is beginning to be seen a lot more at NBC Uni as it converts itself to a 21st century media company.

"If you're an executive used to having lots of resources at your disposal … this is a tough time to be at NBC," Gerbrandt said. He said Discovery's a good fit for Zaslav.

Zaslav's association with John Hendricks, founder of Discovery Channel and head of the CEO search committee, goes back 20 years when he was a young lawyer who pinch hit for Hendricks' attorney. They became close friends and both serve on the boards of TiVo and the NCTA.

"He's been a great adviser to me," Zaslav said.

Zaslav's career at NBC stretches back almost as long, to 1989. He was key to the launching of CNBC and MSNBC, negotiated deals with DirecTV, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and has been president of NBC Uni Cable and Domestic TV since May.

"I've had a great run and I really have a terrific job, particularly in the last few years getting involved with the new-media business and the syndication business," Zaslav said. "It's been really interesting and I've learned a ton."

Zaslav said he was looking forward to the opportunity to run his own company and build on Discovery's already-rich legacy.

"When I look at Discovery, they just have an extraordinary opportunity in a very difficult environment," Zaslav said. "They own a ton of content, they have some of the best brands that mean so much to people, those brands, they're very transferable (to other platforms), it's not just the cable channel."
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