Discovery-ing One of Ad Sales' Deadliest Catches

It's Shark Week every week for cable's quiet competitor Abruzzese

At the last Discovery Communications board meeting, ad sales president Joe Abruzzese received a standing ovation. As the rest of the industry reported first-quarter ad sales declines, Discovery beat the market by 2%.

Discovery CEO David Zaslav attributes the success to Abruzzese's competitive streak. “He's reorganized the sales group three times to make it more competitive,” Zaslav says. “He is the most competitive guy in the world, but in a fun sense. He loves to win, and they've been winning big for us.”

Weekdays might find Abruzzese, 61, sewing up deals with the likes of Procter & Gamble and Clorox while promoting some of the most diverse programming on cable, from Discovery's Deadliest Catch to TLC's blockbuster reality show Jon & Kate Plus 8. Soon will come a new iteration of Discovery Kids and, of course, Oprah Winfrey's new network, OWN.

Discovery's pitch this upfront season is focused on grabbing whatever share of NBC's ad dollars end up in play as a result of Jay Leno moving into his 10 p.m. berth. “Clients will look for different solutions; I don't know if [Leno] can be successful five nights a week,” Abruzzese says.

A buy across four of Discovery's networks, which also include Animal Planet, would out-rate NBC in the hour. Already two retailers, a fast-food company, a bank and a movie company have shown interest in the strategy, Abruzzese says.

The ad sales chief would like to see a buoyant upfront market, but admits it's hard to look forward. “The bigger play is calendar year,” he says, referring to the fact that cablers tend to sell less of their inventory in the upfront than broadcast networks. Cable companies generally release only 50% of their inventory, compared to 80% for the broadcasters.

As for the publicity surrounding Jon & Kate, the Discovery reality show about a couple with eight children—the couple's marriage problems are all over the tabloids—he is sanguine about the benefits of such exposure.

“The good thing is, we've got great sampling; it will be a disappointment if they don't come back,” he says. “The fear is, what's the show going to be? That's on everyone's mind. It may not be the show it was. We need to find out what the show will become and sell its value.”

While the fight for ad dollars gets tougher, Abruzzese has kept things sharper than Shark Week. He's used to tough bosses, having spent some time in the Air Force and, more recently, working for the hard-charging Mel Karmazin. At CBS, Abruzzese pulled together the sponsorship deals that supported a then-little-known show, Survivor. “We had the $300 million deal with P&G and the $100 million, back-of-the-napkin deal with Tony Ponturo at Anheuser-Busch and the $600 million with Bill Cella at Magna,” he recalls nonchalantly of his CBS years.

Though Abruzzese still feels there's plenty to do at the company, thoughts of retirement crop up in conversation. (Zaslav says Abruzzese's contract was recently extended.) Asked how his legacy might be described, he responds that he's happiest that the people who worked for him went on to do so well. They include Keith Turner (former NBC sales chief); Dave Cassaro and Neil Baker (Comcast); Bob Cesa (Twentieth Television); Neil Mulcahy (Fox Sports) and, of course, Jo Ann Ross, sales chief at CBS. “More recently, it's getting cable into the forefront with buyers and clients, and upgrading the image and value of cable,” he says.

Weekends might find this gentle giant of advertising driving one of his classic Chevy Corvettes. He also collects fountain pens,and counts biking and playing golf among his hobbies.

Being a gentleman, the kind you might find in a 1940s movie, he'd like to add a word about his wife: “No success is possible without a wife who will make sure you can do the job, supports all your all late hours and who is a better salesperson than me.”