She is being let her out of her contract effective immediately to return to her native United Kingdom, and Discovery veteran John Ford -- who rejoined the company in September after years away at competitor National Geographic Channel -- will assume the head slot at Discovery Channel. The company is recruiting a new chief for Science.
The news came just hours before the Maryland-based cable channels' parent company, Discovery Communications, and most of its senior executives were to hold their annual holiday party for press in New York.
Root weathered a ratings rollercoaster at Discovery Channel since she joined in May 2004 after leaving as controller of the United Kingdom's BBC2, and she helped to bring it out of a trough with big year-to-year gains for the past several months. But she was hired by the previous Discovery regime under former chief Billy Campbell.
Zaslav said bringing in Ford, whose career he said he has followed for years, has been a priority since he joined the company in January 2007.
"No one knows or understands the Discovery business and nonfiction programming better than John Ford," Zaslav told B&C. "I just felt like he had a ton of horsepower and we had to get him in here from day one," Zaslav added.
Ford spent 14 years at Discovery before leaving to join NGC in 2003. Since returning, he has run The Military Channel and Discovery Times Channel, which the company announced earlier this week would be rebranded as Investigation Discovery.
He left Discovery several months after Campbell was named president of the company -- a role many thought Ford would be tapped for. As executive vice president of programming for NGC, he oversaw originals, acquisitions, production and scheduling through a period of ratings, distribution and ad-sales increases over two few years.
On his watch, NGC grew from an emerging network to a near-fully distributed one, increasing carriage from 45 million homes to more than 67 million, boosting ratings quarter over quarter and tripling ad sales.
Root, meanwhile, had seemed to be a darling at Discovery lately, having overseen a ratings turnaround and driven home a message to the advertising community that the channel had successfully returning to its science and nature-themed programming roots and tapped into a notion in young viewers' minds that knowledge is cool.
Zaslav added Science to her purview in February amid a major shakeup he instituted.
Ford is being tasked with energizing Discovery by continuing to program the mix of science, nature, archeology, adventure and exploration it currently runs, Zaslav said. Discovery has climbed out of a ratings trough over the past two years by programming more shows about science, nature and general knowledge. It averaged 1.2 million viewers in primetime during November, up 20% from last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.
That was after having turned off longtime viewers with over-programmed, off-brand shows like Monster Garage.
Now the network is looking to build upon that by creatively expanding the brand on TV and positioning itself as a top source for knowledge seekers online.
Discovery Communications has invested heavily in Discovery of late, buying online encyclopedia HowStuffWorks for $250 million in October -- its largest purchase to date -- with plans to introduce a daily primetime show based on the site as part of a new programming slate designed to stick to the channel's knowledge-based roots, while tapping new subject matters and formats.
Root had a long career as an independent producer before joining the British Broadcasting Corp., having supplied several programs to commercial broadcaster Channel 4. When the BBC tapped her, she garnered kudos on both sides of the Atlantic for adding such hits as game show The Weakest Link, acclaimed drama The Office and makeover What Not to Wear. All have been adapted and Americanized by U.S. networks, including Discovery's sister channel, TLC.
Meanwhile, Discovery will look for a new president/GM for Science, currently in 52 million homes, with the hope of making it a bigger presence to distributors, advertisers and viewers, Zaslav said.
"We see [Science] as a big horse, and we're going to bring in a big gun to run it," he added.