It was a classic industry stare-down , an odd and fascinating mid-1990s battle that felt like it was made for cable. Bill Goodwyn, Discovery Communications’ master of distribution, who’d been at the company since not long after its inception, sat in a Legal Sea Foods in Boston, across the table from Jedd Palmer, the brilliant if cantankerous head of programming for what was then the country’s largest cable company, Tele- Communications Inc., with fellow TCI exec Allan Singer quietly witnessing. “Bill was pitching the start of the network Animal Planet,” Singer recalls. “At the time, we were starting to consider digital distribution, and the initial thought was this network would be a great driver for new customers. But Bill had decided that this should already be a channel, a tentpole for existing customers on analog expanded-basic carriage.”
Goodwyn pitched with passion, impressing Singer with his savvy, smarts, and commitment to making this work for both Discovery and TCI. But Palmer wasn’t buying it—not yet anyway—and his reaction was pure Animal Planet gamesmanship.
“Each time Bill pitched, Jedd would stare at him and just say, ‘Quack, quack,’” Singer says.
This went on for 40 minutes: Goodwyn pitching, Palmer quacking. Perhaps Palmer was testing Goodwyn’s mettle to see if he’d crack. He didn’t, and what struck Singer then as now about Goodwyn, whom he calls one of the most respected executives in the television industry— and a figure even more greatly admired—was his reserve and his cool under the duck call.
“Bill never let go of the proposition,” Singer says. “And when Animal Planet launched, it was with analog expanded-basic carriage. Even though he got quacked, he was able to get it widely distributed.”
That is no surprise to the distribution and programming execs who have worked with Goodwyn on either side of any negotiation during his tenure at Discovery. It’s his leadership style that has propelled his career forward, earning him B&C Hall of Fame recognition for his steady assurance and aplomb.
“Bill has a very unusual talent. He builds great relationships—he has the best relationship with all the cable operators and distributors out there,” says David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications. “What he is able to do better than anybody is understand what [clients] need. He puts together what their needs and hopes are with what we need and builds deals that work for both parties, which is really tough.”
For Goodwyn, the value of doing things right comes from regarding the second half of the phrase “distribution partner” as key. “It’s the trust, work ethic and integrity that you demonstrate that allows you to succeed,” he says. “Most of my best friends are people I’ve grown up in this industry with, and most sat on the other side of the table.”
The combined gifts of business savvy, a natural talent for communication and dead-on determination came to this son of a strict military father after he graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in journalism. He’d taken a bunch of business courses and discovered a knack for sales that eventually led him to an interview with Discovery founder John Hendricks. The new company was looking to build its distribution sales team, and it turned out to be a career-shifting experience.
“I fell in love with his passion, the mission and the purpose of the company,” Goodwyn says. “You sincerely believed that television had the power to entertain but also to enlighten, inspire and educate at the same time.”
To understand Goodwyn’s successes, first in domestic and then in global distribution at Discovery, one need only pick up the nearest remote. Discovery’s record is extraordinary, with 14 networks— including Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, OWN and HUB—that have attained enviable carriage. “Eight years ago, we were a $6 billion company; we’re now a $34 billion company, and a lot of that asset value, by pure analyst data, comes from the fact that nine of our channels that used to be in 40 million [U.S.] homes are now in between 65 million and 84 million homes,” Zaslav says. “There’s only one person who made that happen, and that’s Bill.”
But Goodwyn, never content to rest on those laurels, took on a more personal project in 2007 when Zaslav added Discovery Education to his purview. Goodwyn has helped grow the department into a powerful financial and teaching asset, creating myriad digital resources for K-12 classrooms, aiding teachers in forming better strategies for engaging students, and introducing digital textbooks and the right methods for using them.
“The way people consume content is with technology, so why do we ask kids to power down?” Goodwyn says. “We have to fill the learning environment with rich content.”
The results: More than 650,000 students across 42 states and provinces now have access to Discovery Education’s Teachbook series. “There’s nothing more satisfying in the world than walking into these classrooms and seeing you’ve helped support and create a new learning initiative where the students are excited,” he says. “You’re making a tangible impact.”
Then again, Goodwyn has spent a career making a tangible impact on friends and colleagues, executives and government officials, teachers and students. It’s part of his long-standing philosophy of hearing people out, making your own voice heard and staying at the table until everybody feels they’ve gained some value.
“I’ve gotten to see the creativity he puts into his work every day,” says Singer, who’s now senior VP of programming at Charter Communications. “When you’re working with him, you really see how bright he is. And how much he cares.”