In a major coup, Discovery Networks U.S. has lured longtime CBS Television Network president of ad sales Joe Abruzzese to head its domestic ad-sales efforts, effective Nov. 1.
In a last-minute teleconference call last Tuesday, Discovery Networks U.S. president Billy Campbell said Abruzzese's hiring was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring in the top draft choice" and "a chance to get the best in the business."
The hiring of Abruzzese — whose CBS career spanned 22 years, the last 11 as the network's head of sales — took many in the industry and on Madison Avenue by surprise.
In fact, when Discovery issued a media advisory on Tuesday, some suspected that McDonald would be announcing a replacement for Jana Bennett, who left as TLC's general manager in the spring.
In an interview last month, Campbell said he expected to name Bennett's successor before the end of October.
TLC, trading off the still-growing appeal of the hit Saturday-night franchise Trading Spaces, is the current star of the Discovery universe. During the third quarter, the network scored a 13-percent rise in household ratings, averaging a 0.9 in primetime for the period. That's just below flagship Discovery Channel's 1.0, which was down 9 percent from the year-earlier span.
Abruzzese's addition also means a new role for Bill McGowan, who was Discovery Networks' top ad-sales executive until last week.
Last spring, McGowan was appointed Discovery Communications Inc. executive vice president and general manager of U.S. ad sales and global integrated partnerships, shortly after rumors circulated that he was about to leave the programmer.
Abruzzese and Campbell — whose careers crossed in 1996, when the latter worked for CBS president Leslie Moonves — both emphasized during a conference call that McGowan will remain part of the sales team.
Abruzzese said McGowan would be "clearly my No. 2."
Campbell said McGowan will continue to focus on global and multiplatform sales, although Abruzzese will oversee those areas.
During the call, Abruzzese said he was eyeing a sales-department restructuring. In an interview last Friday, he said he had not officially started working at Discovery, so he could not yet spell out his proposed sales reorganization.
So far, "It's a shadow of an idea," he said.
But he said of any major TV or cable organization, "If you're doing the same thing the same way for more than four years, you're probably doing it wrong."
That's because the business keeps changing, said Abruzzese, citing the trend toward consolidation on both the media and ad-agency sides.
During his tenure at Black Rock, Abruzzese noted, he restructured CBS's sales organization four times. That does not necessarily mean layoffs.
"It's putting the right people in the right jobs, he said.
A restructuring at his old haunt might have kept Abruzzese, whose contract with CBS parent Viacom Inc. expired Oct. 31.
Asked to respond to a Jack Myers Reports
item from early last week — which said Viacom president Mel Karmazin was considering revamping the media conglomerate's overall ad-sales structure under "a single sales czar" — Abruzzese said he was unaware of it.
"If they had done that, I might have stayed," he said, calling the move a good idea.
also reported that CBS president Les Moonves considers that restructuring scenario unlikely.
Price and value
At Discovery, Abruzzese said that one of his main goals was to reduce "the disparity in price and value" between network cable and the broadcast networks.
Given the increased amount of original programming on cable — and on Discovery's networks in particular — "I think the valuation [of cable] needs to be brought up," he said.
One thing that Karmazin impressed upon him, Abruzzese said, is to "sell value per show."
As basic cable continues to make inroads in the Nielsen Media Research ratings against the major television networks, Abruzzese was bullish on basic cable's ad-sales outlook: "Advertising money follows rating points," he said.
For now, though, it does not appear that Abruzzese will continue McGowan's high-profile, pre-upfront forecasts.
"Predictions are a little dangerous," Abruzzese said.
Most of the upfront forecasts last spring were off the mark, failing to foresee the surge of business that went to the broadcast networks.
If these forecasters were weathermen, Abruzzese said, "They'd be predicting sun and it'd be snowing."
In fact, he maintained, nobody knows how the upfront marketplace is going to take shape.
"Even the advertisers didn't know last spring," he said. "No one sees the entire picture."
The biggest buyer, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global USA, "sees only 22 percent of the landscape," he said, while CBS sees about 80 percent of it.
Placements on rise
Abruzzese's vision for Discovery includes more product placement. Such integration should be "a reward, giving value earned" for time buys, he said last Friday, citing the examples of General Motors Corp. and others on CBS'Survivor
During the conference call, he said he's interested in exploring programming sponsorships along the lines of Turner Network Television's Johnson & Johnson-sponsored original movies.
"Sponsorships demand premiums," he said later.
More cross-platform selling — something he said was relatively untapped by cable — is also on Abruzzese's agenda.
By bundling a variety of networks, as Discovery does, a client can "punch through the clutter," he said.
Both McGowan and Abruzzese have been involved in cross-platform deals. The former signing Procter & Gamble Co. to a $50 million cross-platform deal and General Motors Corp. to a multifaceted sponsorship deal last spring. For his part, Abruzzese had a hand in a $300 million cross-platform deal between Viacom and P&G.
Other DCI doings
As Abruzzese prepares to revamp Discovery's sales operation, McDonald hopes to lift the programmer through themed nights of programming, original movies, more offbeat and comprehensive documentaries and celebrity "passion projects."
Last Wednesday, the network retained BaylessCronin in Atlanta as its first outside creative agency. Overall, the shop is being charged with developing brand-building advertising and new-programming initiatives, according to agency and Discovery officials.
One of the new agency's first assignments will be "Discovery Channel Quest," the network's upcoming General Motors Corp.-sponsored quarterly programming initiative. Its first iteration, James Cameron's Expedition: Bismarck, is due in primetime Dec. 8.
Among McDonald's other tasks: Injecting life into the struggling Travel Channel, which has seen viewership fade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; and overseeing the relaunched and revamped Discovery Civilization Channel with partner The New York Times Co.
Changes are also afoot at Animal Planet. On Friday, Bill Graff was given the new position of vice president of programming partnerships.
Doug Craig will succeed Graff as vice president of programming. As the network's director of programming, Craig developed and managed the company's joint venture with the BBC.