President and GM, Investigation Discovery, Military Channnel and HD Theater: Henry Schleiff

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Few people could tease Sumner Redstone
that his jacket looked like a wet horse
blanket and get away with it. But Henry
Schleiff is just that hilarious.

Frank Biondi, the former Viacom
CEO, recalls one rainy morning in the
late 1980s when Redstone entered a staff
meeting wearing a soaking wet plaid sports coat. Schleiff,
whom Biondi had recently hired as chairman and CEO of
Viacom’s broadcast and entertainment groups, looked up
and without even pausing said, “What’s the poor horse
going to do?”

“Even Sumner had to laugh,” Biondi says. “It was
just one of those Henry lines. He’s really good with
the quip.”

Anyone who has met Schleiff—now president and
GM of Investigation Discovery, Military Channel and
HD Theater—will inevitably first mention his sense of
humor when asked to describe him. But he matches
that biting wit with solid operational and financial
management skills, and joins the B&C Hall of Fame
Class of 2010 thanks to a hard-earned reputation as
one of the best turnaround executives in the cable network
business.

Arguably his greatest success was re-launching
Court TV, which when Schleiff came on as chairman
and CEO in 1998 was on life support, doing a 0.1 or
less in the ratings on any given night and in danger of
being shut down by Time Warner. In his eight years
at the helm, Schleiff dramatically refocused the programming,
moving the channel from court coverage to
more crime-centered primetime shows. As a result, the
network went from 30 million to 85 million subscribers
and its asset value grew from about $400 million
to $1.5 billion by the time he left in 2006.

“He did everything we had hoped he would do,”
says Dick Parsons, former Time Warner CEO and a
mentor to Schleiff. “More than revive it, he was able
to turn it around and make it important and relevant
and respected in the space.”

In growing that network and others, Schleiff credits
the importance of passion as the key to accomplishment. “What makes success versus failure is people
who feel genuinely passionate, and wake up every
morning excited about what they do,” he says.

And for Schleiff, that passion has always been
television in some form. Even at the beginning of his
career, while working as a corporate associate at the
Wall Street law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, the New
York City-born Schleiff secretly subscribed to Variety
and wrote gags freelance for
Saturday Night Live, though
not too successfully, he admits.
“They would use about
one of every 1,200 lines I provided
them.”

But the SNL gig gave
Schleiff his first taste of the
entertainment industry, and
exacerbated his interest in
transitioning from the pure
practice of law. So he parlayed
his legal resume to a
job as in-house counsel to the
then relatively small company
Viacom.

While cutting deals for Viacom,
he made connections at
HBO, and in 1980 joined the fledging pay TV network
as SVP of business affairs and administration, a position
he held for seven years and which he calls his “real introduction to the business.”

It was there that he met Biondi, and when the HBO
chief executive was tapped to head Viacom in 1987,
he brought Schleiff along with him. After Schleiff left
Viacom in 1992 for a relatively short stint as an independent
producer, Biondi hired him back again, this
time at Universal (then called Studios USA).

Of their extensive professional collaboration, Biondi
says, “He’s one of the few executives I’ve ever
worked with who has been able through his career to
systematically improve on his weaknesses and turn
them into strengths,” adding, “I’d hire him a fourth
time if I had the chance.”

Schleiff followed his later success at Court TV with
a turn as president and CEO of Crown Media Holdings,
where he guided Hallmark Channel to profitability
and a top 10 position in the ratings within two
years. But faced with a dismal market in which to sell
the network, he left Hallmark in mid-2009 in search of
a new challenge, a common theme in Schleiff’s more
than 30-year career.

“You get a lot of people who work for you who do
good work,” Biondi says. “But there are very few of
them who actually continue to climb up the corporate
ladder, increase responsibility, do bigger and bigger
jobs, and become really great managers in their own
right. Henry’s one of them.”

Admiring David Zaslav’s turnaround of Discovery
and seeing potential in the fledging Investigation
Discovery network, which Schleiff saw as “a lot like
young Court TV,” he pitched Zaslav his plan to make
I.D. the fourth leg of the Discovery Communications
table, alongside the already successful Discovery
Channel, TLC and Animal Planet.

“Before the conversation ended, from my perspective,
we were done,” says Zaslav, president and CEO
of Discovery Communications. “I shook his hand and
I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Because I know Henry—when he
says he’s going to do something, he does it.”

And in Zaslav’s words, Schlieff has over-delivered
on I.D. It’s now the fastest-growing cable network
in primetime, building its household audience
by 56% from 2009 to 2010 YTD. His success with
I.D. prompted Zaslav to give Schleiff the additional
responsibility of running Military Channel and HD
Theater in January 2010.

“The momentum comes from Henry—seven days
a week, 24 hours a day, pushing this thing,” Zaslav
says. “He just has great ambition and that translates
into real value—near-term economic value and asset
value.”

A self-proclaimed family man, Schleiff enjoys
spending time outside of work with his wife, Peggy,
and sons Harry, 22, and Sidney, 18. And it’s personal
relationships that he values most in the workplace,
too, naming the bonds he has forged over the years as
the greatest accomplishment of his career, rather than
any quantitative success.

“If there is an achievement, it’s that I’ve made an
incredible number of friends along the way,” Schleiff
says. “I think the ability to sit down with any number
of people I’ve worked with in the past, or may work
with in the future, and have drinks and a couple of
laughs, is about the best thing that you can say in this
business.”

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