Ford in at Discovery Channel

BBC could be in future for Root

UPDATED 8:11 p.m. PT Nov. 28, 2007

Jane Root is leaving her post as president and GM of Discovery Channel and the Science Channel.

Root is planning to return to the U.K., her home country, and will be succeeded as head of Discovery by John Ford, who since September has headed Discovery Times and Military Channel.

Discovery said it expects to name new leadership for Discovery Times (which is being renamed Investigation Discovery in January), Military and Science in the coming weeks.

In a statement, Root said the timing was right to leave.

"After much consultation with friends and family, I have decided that this is the best time for me to leave Discovery and return to the United Kingdom to pursue other opportunities in the media industry," she said.

While the statement doesn't provide any specifics about her plans, industry insiders in the U.K. speculate that Root could be a leading candidate to head BBC1 following controller Peter Fincham's departure last month as a fallout from the "Queengate" scandal.

Before joining Discovery three years ago as executive vp and GM, Root was a highly successful controller of BBC2, the pubcaster's No. 2 network. During her tenure at BBC2, Root worked closely with then-director of television Mark Thompson, who is now BBC director general. Thompson and content head Jana Bennett have struggled to fill the top BBC1 post, with BBC2 controller and acting BBC1 controller Roly Keating ruling himself out and several other potential candidates distancing themselves from the hiring process. Thompson visited the U.S. two weeks ago. Meanwhile, BBC veteran Bennett, a friend of Root's, also did a thee-year stateside stint as executive vp and GM of Discovery Communications before returning to London in 2002 to take a top position with the BBC.

Root was given oversight of Science in February amid a shake-up at the company instituted by David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications, not long after he joined the company. It saw the ouster of several senior executives, including Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks U.S. (HR 2/6).

Both Discovery and Science are seeing double-digit ratings gains this year, the company said. Discovery has received a ratings boost lately with programs like the Emmy-winning, big-budget "Planet Earth." Other attention-grabbing shows include "Deadliest Catch," "Man vs. Wild" (which also generated controversy this year after its authenticity was questioned) and "Dirty Jobs." The network also said it has lowered its primetime median age from 41 a year ago to 37.

At Discovery Communications' annual holiday party with the media Wednesday night, Zaslav said Discovery has a lot of momentum with a renewed sense of the brand and strong shows.

"Jane did a great job," Zaslav he told The Hollywood Reporter. "Now we've got to take it to the next level."

Zaslav, who has known Ford for two decades, believes he is the right executive to do that.

"John is the best nonfiction executive I've ever worked with," Zaslav said. "He is going to make Discovery even more powerful."

Zaslav served with Ford on a National Geographic board before enlisting him to return to Discovery in September.

Ford left Discovery's competitor National Geographic in March after a four-year stint as executive vp programming where he developed such series as "Naked Science" and "Dog Whisperer" and is credited with significantly boosting primetime ratings. He previously spent 13 years at Discovery, where he launched or grew such networks as TLC, Discovery Health Channel and HD Theater.

Also at Discovery Communications's holiday bash, which Root didn't attend, Ford said he didn't envision major changes off the bat at Discovery and Science, but said a key focus going forward would be to find new, charismatic shows to keep up the momentum.

Paul J. Gough in New York and Mimi Turner in London contributed to this report.