Zaslav’s Big Discovery

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David Zaslav’s jump to Discovery Communications is not the first time he has replaced Discovery Communications CEO Judith McHale. When he was a young lawyer in 1988, long before rising to become president of cable and new media distribution for NBC Universal, Zaslav’s law firm “lent” him to client Discovery. He filled in while then-General Counsel McHale took maternity leave.

As Zaslav returns as president/CEO, Discovery is a much different place. He’ll be in charge of a dozen U.S. networks plus a web of international services reaching 170 countries. His biggest job will be figuring out how Discovery can thrive in the new world of video technology. He spoke to B&C’s John M. Higgins about what he faces and why he left NBC Universal.

What do you see at Discovery, which has had problems recently?

I don’t agree with that. Discovery faces the same content challenges every content company faces. The world is changing. Discovery is not just a cable channel. It’s a brand that has real integrity and meaning to people, as a meaningful place to learn and explore on all platforms.

They have great brands, with great integrity and a focus on leadership in things like HDTV and digital. They’ve been incredibly effective in taking their brands all around the world. The next step is taking those brands onto new platforms and growing them. The media companies that view content as if it were still the 1990s are going to get left behind.

Discovery and TLC’s ratings have rebounded, but ad sales have not.

I’m going to spend the next couple of months with the strong people inside Discovery. We’ll focus on all the things we do well and look at all the things we may need to do faster, and build our relationship with viewers even stronger. I’m a clean slate.

At NBC, you were already seen as someone destined to rise. Now Randy Falco’s exit creates lots of room, lots of turf to grab. Why exit NBC now?

My decision has nothing to do with Randy Falco’s. Totally coincidental. It was really hard, very emotional. I have a lot respect for [NBCU Chairman] Bob Wright, [NBCU TV Group CEO] Jeff Zucker and many others. There was opportunity at NBC, but this was a bigger opportunity. It gives me a chance to run a company. And a chance to report to a board I respect and can learn a lot from.

Why take this job?

[Chairman and founder] John Hendricks. I was a young lawyer in the 1980s doing securities work. Discovery was a client, and I spent a bunch of time with Hendricks while he was starting the company. He was trying to get carriage, raise money, pull partners into the business, buy programming with a single-minded vision that he was going to make Discovery a compelling brand.

He was driven by the idea that you could educate and entertain. I got a window into the cable industry and saw somebody with a passion.

I liked that passion, but when I went back to the law firm, I didn’t see it around me. I read that Bob Wright wanted to get NBC into the cable business. I reached out and said I have this unique background, and he hired me.

Why, then, didn’t you join Discovery earlier?

I was in New York at the time, I didn’t want to leave, I was just getting married, and Bob Wright had a great vision for where he was going. It’s given me an exposure to cable, a fair amount of broadcast and movie content, and a real sense of how all these technologies impact how consumers watch TV.

Your primary background has been in affiliate sales of NBC’s cable networks. That’s an area where Discovery really has no weakness.

Not really. I started really as a business-development guy, then took on distribution, retransmission consent and sales. I was head of cable business development for many years at NBC, where we bought and sold big pieces of different cable programming businesses.

We launched CNBC and MSNBC. We bought and sold a piece of Court TV, of News 12 Long Island. Got into the sports-network business, then got out. In the past two years, I’ve been able to take a leadership role in technology and the syndication business.

Do you plan any changes in the existing executive team?

They have a fantastic team. I’m looking forward to getting to know them and learning from them.

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