Discovery Communications' hunt for a CEO is over, with the programming giant snagging David Zaslav, NBC Universal Cable and Domestic TV and New Media Distribution. Zaslav will serve as president and CEO, reporting to chairman and founder John Hendricks. He replaces Judith McHale, who officially exits Dec. 1.
Zaslav’s move adds to the disruption in the executive ranks at NBCU, including that the company's Television Group President Randy Falco has jumped to AOL.
Zaslav was contending for the job with Greg Dyke, former director general for the BBC, which has long had a close relationship with DCI, both as a supplier of programming and a partner in BBC America. He was also vying with an insider, Senior Executive VP of Operations Mark Hollinger.
Zaslav’s primary background is in affiliate sales of NBCU’s cable networks, first its news networks and then recently acquired networks such as Bravo and USA. But he’s also been in charge of business development, including the investment in and sales of parts of Court TV and Rainbow Networks.
Over the past two years, he has broadened his portfolio, taking charge of distribution of TV and Universal Studios movies on every platform, including the Web, cellphones and NBC’s first-run broadcast syndication unit. He has long been seen as a comer at NBCU, likely to rise.
Insiders say that, after turning down an initial approach, Zaslav let Discovery Communications know that he was now interested in the CEO job.
In an interview, Zaslav said that he was drawn to the company by the strength of Discovery’s networks and a 20-year relationship with Hendricks. "It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with a very old friend and report to a great board or real cable leaders," Zaslav says. His board is composed of Cox Communications, Advance Newhouse and an affiliate of Liberty Media.
Before joining NBC in 1989, Zaslav was a corporate and entertainment attorney at a New York law firm.
Zaslav’s entry will be welcomed in many parts of the company. One big fear of many insiders was that Discovery’s board would reach for a CEO too far outside the TV industry, going after someone with a background in new media but not in television.
"David would instinctively understand the issues of our business," says one Discovery executive.
Zaslav briefly replaced McHale once before. When Zaslav was a lawyer at New York firm LeBouef, Lamb, Leiby & MacRae, Hendricks was one of the firm’s clients. McHale -- then general counsel -- went out on maternity leave in 1988, and the firm assigned Zaslav to fill in. The network was just two years old and still struggling for viewers and cable carriage.
"I got to travel around with John a lot," Zaslav said in a 2003 interview with B&C. "It was exhilarating. They were bursting out. They were trying to buy content, trying to build a brand, trying to get distribution."
Thereafter, Zaslav was simply bored with corporate law. At work on a reinsurance company's IPO, he said, "I remember thinking at 2 a.m. that cable was a lot more fun." He joined NBC shortly afterward.