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A few days after joining Discovery Communications as chief digital officer in 2011, JB Perrette gave the board a presentation on the company’s digital operations. “It changed the way we were looking at things and marked the start of a strategic shift that has really changed our culture,” recalls Discovery president and CEO David Zaslav.
Since then Perrette has radically revamped Discovery’s digital operations, selling off some properties while acquiring others and significantly expanding original online and digital video production. “We want to take our position as the No. 1 nonfiction TV company and transform ourselves into the No. 1 nonfiction video company across all screens, not just TV,” Perrette says.
As part of that effort, Discovery acquired Revision3 in 2012 and more than doubled its online video production. Other notable deals have included Philip DeFranco’s portfolio of online video channels and stakes in Grockit and Lumosity. “We’ve been on a tear since JB arrived,” Zaslav says.
This flurry isn’t the first time Perrette has moved quickly to respond to a rapidly changing business landscape.
Learning to Listen
After college, Perrette cut his teeth in the deal-making and management world at investment bank CS First Boston and GE before joining NBC in 2000, where he played a major role in new media strategies and eventually headed digital distribution.
Perrette didn’t have a background in technology. But the management training he received at GE sharpened his analytical skills and ability to quickly learn new markets. “It taught me to embrace change,” he says.
This was particularly evident in the early development of Hulu. Perrette was a staunch advocate of the then-controversial project inside NBCU and later served on Hulu’s board. “JB has great judgment about market trends,” says Jason Kilar, former head of Hulu. Early on, Perrette saw the growing importance of mobile; he was a major backer of the Hulu Plus subscription model.
Often that judgment put Perrette at odds with those who espoused conventional wisdom. “When we first introduced the idea of Hulu, almost no one in NBCUniversal except me and JB thought it had any merit,” Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, recalls of his days heading NBCU and working with Perrette. “He saw the coming of Netflix and all those companies before most people.”
While Perrette was willing to take controversial positions, he had a collegial management style and a great ability to listen and learn. “The best leaders are the ones who listen first, and JB is that kind of guy,” Kilar says.
In 2011, Zaslav, who had worked with Perrette for many years at NBCU, hired him at Discovery. Some of his earliest deals are already paying off. Revision3 has more than tripled its video streams since being acquired, and Discovery’s channels are finding new programming ideas from its burgeoning original online video content.
Looking forward, Perrette says Discovery will continue to eye new acquisitions while expanding in-house efforts to ramp up digital video. The company recently reorganized both its U.S. and international digital activities under Perrette’s management, and he’s working on improvements to the way Discovery serves its global audiences.
Away from work, Perrette spends much of his time with his wife and their 4-year-old son. Having grown up as the son of a French father and an American mother, he spent many summers in Paris, and he remains a “big foodie” who loves to travel.
Perrette’s fascination with learning and technology carries over to his involvement in Citizen Schools New York. As part of the nonprofit’s work to help middle school students in low-income communities, Google engineers have come into its after-school programs to teach how math is important in designing video games. “It shows why math is important for their future,” Perrette says. “It dovetails nicely with the spirit and mission of Discovery.”
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