David Zaslav, NBC Universal president of cable and domestic TV, has been named president-CEO of Discovery Communications.
He succeeds outgoing chief exec Judith McHale, an 18-year Discovery vet who announced in August she would step down at the end of the year. He begins in early 2007 and will report to Discovery founder-chair John Hendricks.
Zaslav, who runs NBC U cable properties Bravo, Sci Fi Channel and USA, domestic syndication and new digital technologies, is the second top NBC U exec to leave in as many days. NBC U television group prexy Randy Falco left the Peacock for AOL on Wednesday.
New post is a big step up for Zaslav, who now controls a $12 billion enterprise, which includes 14 Stateside networks, among them Discovery Channel and TLC, a big international operation and a growing digital biz.
He edged a lengthy list of contenders for the job, including inhouse execs Billy Campbell, president of Discovery’s U.S. networks, and Mark Hollinger, senior exec VP of corporate operations and general counsel. Zaslav was selected by a committee consisting of shareholder reps from Discovery Holding Co., Advance/Newhouse Communications and Cox Communications. (Advance and Cox each own 25% of Discovery Communications.)
Zaslav told Daily Variety his main challenge will be building up Discovery’s business on nonlinear platforms — an area in which it lags behind cable groups such as MTV Networks.
“They have the building blocks because the brands already break through the clutter,” he said. “Discovery also is in the unique position of having fantastic libraries, of which they own a ton of content. The challenge is to figure out how best to use that content and on what platforms.”
It’s an area Zaslav recently ran for NBC U. Earlier this year he was placed in charge of the distribution of TV and Universal Studios movies on every platform, including video-on-demand, the Web, iTunes, cell phones and other wireless devices. He also ran business development and has served as pointman in major deals for all of NBC U’s cable networks, engineering long-term renewals with satellite distributors and cable operators.
Zaslav first met Hendricks working as a lawyer for a firm that repped Discovery, just as the network was getting off the ground.
“He was the first person in the business I had met that was really passionate about what he was doing — programming that educates and enlightens and entertains,” Zaslav said. “It’s what convinced me to move to cable.”
And although Zaslav, who spent the past 17 years rising up the ranks of NBC, said he leaves behind a talented team at the Peacock, he explains he wasn’t about to turn down the chance to reteam with Hendricks.
“It was a rare opportunity to run a company, and to run it with John, a great board and a really fantastic set of brands,” Zaslav said.
Discovery Communications has been on an upswing year-to-date: Ratings for Discovery and TLC continue to grow, and the cable group is gradually overcoming the hit it took in ad sales when ratings for the two main channels bottomed out two years ago.
In a statement, Hendricks said: “In serving with David on the TiVo board of directors, I directly observed his keen insights into the future landscape of media. He is a passionate, inspiring leader who is the perfect choice to steward the valuable stable of Discovery brands and to guide our global company into the digital future.”
For NBC U, Zaslav’s departure sets up myriad succession scenarios. Like Falco, network brass say Zaslav’s position likely will not be replaced. Instead, the net will use the opportunity to cut a layer out of management and divvy up responsibilities among capable lieutenants.
Among the execs likely to have their portfolios increased at NBC U are Jeff Gaspin, who heads cross-network digital strategy; Bonnie Hammer, prexy of both USA and Sci Fi; and Lauren Zalaznick, a press darling who made Bravo one of the net’s strongest performers.
Zaslav, who reported to Falco, has been with NBC since 1989. He helped launch CNBC early in his NBC career and MSNBC in 1996.