Discovery restructures; 5 execs exit


Last week at a Discovery Communications sales conference in Florida, Billy Campbell tried something different to break up the usual lineup of pitches and programming reels. He arranged for a survivor from the 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mountains to recount his ordeal for the assembled employees. Then Campbell took to the stage and spoke movingly of the importance of perseverance amid hardships, a message those in attendance understood as applying to pending changes at Discovery.

Now Campbell might be heeding his own advice. He was ousted Monday from his post as president of Discovery Networks U.S. amid a big shake-up at the company, along with four other senior executives.

The changes were unveiled by Discovery's new president and CEO, David Zaslav, who was recruited this year by chairman John Hendricks from NBC Universal to replace longtime CEO Judith McHale. Zaslav is eliminating Campbell's position, which had overseen all domestic programming assets, and also restructuring the company into five overarching brand groups: Discovery Channel, TLC, Discovery Travel Media, Animal Planet Media/Discovery Kids Media and Discovery Health Media Enterprises.

Also departing Discovery in the reshuffle are David Abraham, president and GM of TLC; Maureen Smith, GM of Animal Planet; Dawn McCall, president of Discovery's international holdings; and Pandit Wright, senior executive vp human resources.

In addition, broader layoffs are expected at Discovery. In an interview, Zaslav declined comment on the possibility but said in response to a question about job cuts: "If we're going to invest more in new media and business, we have to invest less in infrastructure. We're going to be looking very hard at our traditional cost basis."

But Discovery also is adding new blood as a result of the shake-up. Among the execs filling a slew of new positions at the channel are Joel Berman, former president of CBS Paramount Worldwide Television, and Tom Wolzien, a veteran media analyst formerly of Sanford C. Bernstein. Both are coming on as consultants to the company.

That a company with Discovery's stability is being socked by such a dramatic change is a testament to the growing pains many companies are enduring in the face of the advent of digital media. Although two of Discovery's key assets, Discovery Channel and TLC, looked wobbly last year as their ad revenue waned, both networks were considered back on track alongside a relatively strong and extensive roster of brands.

The shake-up was not entirely unexpected, sources said. Discovery staffers have been bracing for cuts since Zaslav's former boss at NBC Uni, AOL's Randy Falco, instituted broad changes and job reductions at AOL just months after he departed the peacock as well for the Time Warner division. Falco left NBC Uni one week before Zaslav, who was presumed to be carrying out the same mandate for systemic overhaul that his close colleague was brought in to do at AOL.

Sources said Campbell made no secret inside the company of his ambition to succeed McHale in the CEO post. When Zaslav was hired instead, Discovery observers assumed Campbell would move on; staffers said he hoped to try his hand at producing back on the West Coast.

But when Campbell appeared jovial throughout Discovery's conference in Florida last week, some assumed he was assured a place in the new regime. It is not known whether Campbell had any idea then that he was on the way out or perhaps knew but was not letting on where he would land next. Campbell was not available for comment.

Asked about Campbell's exit, Zaslav said: "Billy is a great leader, and he's really driven the success of Discovery's domestic business. But my overall focus is we need to create less layers and a more hands-on approach. And in that kind of structure and environment, we had a hugely talented senior executive who was between me and the channels. I wanted my hands directly on those businesses."

Since joining Discovery Networks in 2002, Campbell presided over a period of extensive change but strong growth for the channel roster. Although the hair-raising life and death of Animal Planet star Steve Irwin provided Campbell with a few public relations challenges, there were far more highlights during his tenure, including the addition of hit series like "Monster Garage" and the signing of Lance Armstrong to a high-profile endorsement deal with Discovery.

But his biggest coup at Discovery was one of his first moves at the company: luring CBS veteran Joe Abbruzzese to run ad sales, which instantly elevated the company's profile on Madison Avenue.

While Campbell ably steered Discovery in his time there, he always was an odd fit in Discovery's toned-down culture out of its Silver Springs, Md., headquarters. If the soft twang that divulged his Southern roots as a native of Greenville, S.C., wasn't enough to confer outsider status, his well-stocked Hollywood Rolodex surely did. By the time Campbell arrived at Discovery, he already had worked at ABC, Warner Bros., Miramax and CBS, where he served as No. 2 to Leslie Moonves during the late 1990s.

Discovery also had already been restructuring slowly in response to digital media realities. Travel Channel and Discovery Health already had refocused from channel-centric operations to broader businesses that embraced the full panoply of media platforms. Although Discovery insiders had expected Zaslav to remake the company in the image of NBC Uni, the new structure actually owes more to Viacom, which also consolidates power for each brand in the hands of two execs -- one creative and the other financially minded.

Meanwhile, the five network brand groups, which will report to Zaslav, will be headed by:

  Jane Root, president and GM of the Discovery Channel, who also will oversee the Science Channel.

  A yet-to-be-named president and GM of TLC, replacing Abraham, who is set to leave the company at the end of March and return home to the U.K. The company is launching a search that includes internal and external candidates.

  Pat Younge, president and GM of Discovery Travel Media.

  Marjorie Kaplan, who is being promoted to president and GM of Animal Planet Media and Discovery Kids Media, which means the company's "family-focused networks" are being consolidated under one executive. Smith's position as GM of Animal Planet Media is being eliminated.

  Len Tacconi, president of Discovery Health Media Enterprises.

Zaslav said the five executives will assume additional authority over key business functions including production, marketing, new media, communications and research and also will have dedicated brand support from advertising sales and business development.

Zaslav added that there will be a senior business manager, similar to a COO, for each of the network brand groups "to allow the creative executives to focus on the creative work and business executives to focus on the operations." A search will be launched to find these executives, who will oversee all business operations and administration, coordination across business units and leading the strategy for brand extensions.

In addition to the five brand group chiefs, Abbruzzese, president of advertising sales, and Bill Goodwyn, president of affiliate sales and marketing, also will now report to Zaslav.

Goodwyn will now take the title of president of domestic distribution and enterprises. As part of the restructuring, Discovery Education, headed by president Steve Sidel, will now report to Goodwyn.

Meanwhile, Zaslav is forming a new division dubbed Discovery Studios that will comprise Discovery Production Group, Discovery Films, Discovery Creative Resources and the shortform content unit Preditor. Veteran Discovery executive Clark Bunting will serve as president of Discovery Studios, reporting to Zaslav.

Zaslav also is restructuring the Military Channel, Discovery Times Channel, Discovery Home Channel and Discovery HD Theater into a new division dubbed the Emerging Networks Group. A search is being launch to fill the top position.

Meanwhile, in their new role as consultants, Wolzien will work with senior management on Discovery's overall global growth strategy and to explore opportunities in digital television, the Internet and new media, while Berman will look to develop an "aggressive" syndication strategy for Discovery's content domestically and abroad.

Other promotions and appointments:

  Mark Hollinger is being upped to president of global businesses and operations, with his additional responsibilities now including management of Discovery Commerce and Discovery Networks International. Discovery Commerce president Frank Rosales will now report to Hollinger.

  Greg Ricca, a former COO at MTV International, has been named president and CEO of Discovery Networks International, replacing McCall, who had been with the company for 20 years. He will report to Hollinger.

  Adria Alpert-Romm, who headed human resources for the NBC Entertainment and News division at NBC Universal, has been named senior executive vp human resources, reporting to Zaslav. Alpert-Romm replaces Wright, a 12-year Discovery veteran.

Discovery also is launching a search to find a business development chief, who will lead the team devoted to determining the growth priorities for DCI's global assets and "will centralize, at the corporate level, the planning for acquisitions, joint ventures and other potential partnerships in the digital and new-media space," Zaslav said.

Discovery, which reported revenue of $722 million in the third quarter, is half-owned by Discovery Holding Co., a spinoff of Liberty Media. The other half is split between Cox Communications and Advance/Newhouse Communications.