Billy Campbell, the new president of Discovery Networks U.S., comes to the company from Hollywood, where he made his name developing primetime hits for broadcast — entertainment with a capital "E."
Now, he'll chart a course for Discovery during a crucial period. The competition for eyeballs — and programming — is tougher than it's ever been. It's become a fierce battleground, in which the Big Four have intruded on the turf of both cable — and Discovery — by turning to reality-based, nonfiction fare.
Last week, 42-year-old Campbell, most recently the president of Miramax Television, indicated that he'll try to punch up the programming at the 11 Discovery cable networks that will fall under his purview.
His goal is to create signature shows for Discovery's services that will entertain as well as inform, series like The Learning Channel's Trading Spaces.
"I've been a loyal viewer of the Discovery networks for years," said Campbell, a veteran of CBS, Warner Bros. Television and ABC and a self-proclaimed "storyteller."
Discovery Communications Inc. president Judith McHale used Campbell's appointment to say once again that DCI, which posted $1.9 billion in revenue last year, is not for sale and has several avenues for growth.
She trumpeted DCI's success as an independent company in a world of media-conglomerate Goliaths — competitors with their own movie studios, broadcast networks and TV stations.
McHale said DCI's distributor customers like the fact that there's an independent programmer in the marketplace. Discovery has launched 10 networks without the benefit of retransmission consent, she noted.
She didn't say so, but having such part-owners as Liberty Media Corp. and Cox Communications Inc. didn't hurt that cause.
With some glee, McHale pointed out that when both DCI and News Corp. sought to launch health networks, DCI emerged victorious in the head-to-head face-off. DCI bought out The Health Network, News Corp.'s offering, last year.
"We, in essence, outlasted the competitor," she said.
Campbell's appointment was a surprise on several fronts. Observers had considered Discovery Networks Content Group president John Ford a shoo-in to replace Johnathan Rodgers, who left in March. Also, Campbell's forte is in scripted shows, not fact-based series.
"It sounds like they're [DCI] getting more interested in a broader approach to their content," said The Yankee Group media analyst Adi Kishore. "You always want to add more people to your audience."
Campbell's resume includes roles in the development of Everybody Loves Raymond, ER.
and China Beach,
via the programming jobs he's held at CBS Entertainment and Warner Bros. TV.
MENTOR: DAN BURKE
He started his television career at ABC Entertainment, through an unusual route, after a brief stint on Wall Street.
Campbell was attending the Harvard Business School and an alumnus — Dan Burke, then CEO of Capital Cities/ABC Inc. — came to speak. As Mark Zakarin — a former Showtime programmer, veteran producer and a friend of Campbell — tells the story, Campbell approached Burke with "150 questions."
Burke was so impressed with Campbell, he told him to come to Los Angeles to join ABC, where Zakarin was working at the time. ABC officials were at first skeptical and resentful of Campbell — who showed up in the Alphabet Network's laid-back L.A. office like a fish out of water, wearing a starched white shirt, suit and tie, Zakarin recalled.
"He still managed to worm his way into people's hearts," Zakarin said. "It started out with groans, and then ended up with people embracing the guy. He's this great cock-eyed optimist, and a great team leader."
Campbell was at Harvard with Steve Burke, Dan Burke's son and the president of Comcast Corp.'s cable unit. Steve Burke was one of the people who urged Campbell to take the Discovery gig.
Sam Haskell, worldwide head of television for the William Morris Agency, called Campbell a good fit for Discovery.
"He has great integrity," Haskell said. "He understands talent. He understands the creative process. And he's a great leader."
Campbell repeatedly stressed that at Miramax, he shepherded the development of Project Greenlight,
a 12-part documentary series on moviemaking for Home Box Office.
Campbell also produced an ESPN documentary — a pilot for the series The Greatest Sports Stories Never Told
about Fritz Pollard, an African-American football player in the 1920s.
"Clearly, there is a difference in fiction versus nonfiction," Campbell said. "But I've had had some great experiences in the past year on the nonfiction side. It all comes back to great storytelling."
The flagship Discovery Channel seemed to have reached its ratings and critical-acclaim peak two years ago, with the dual blockbusters Walking with Dinosaurs
and Raising the Mammoth.
Discovery Channel's primetime ratings were flat last year, at a 1.2, compared with 2000.
McHale said the public has "a great appetite" for high-quality programming like Dinosaurs, so that's an area DCI needs to capitalize on.
"There are significant opportunities to expand all our audiences for all our networks," she said.
To that end, DCI has been solidifying powerful programming partnerships. In March, it extended its global alliance with the British Broadcasting Corp. And last month, The New York Times Co. paid $100 million for a 50-percent stake in Discovery Civilization Channel.
The Times and DCI plan to jointly develop and relaunch the network. Just last week, the companies recruited a general manager for Civilization: former Cable News Network documentary producer Vivian Schiller.
Aside from viewership, there are other growth areas for DCI, such as video-on-demand and high-definition television, according to McHale.
Advertisers who fret about audience fragmentation "can use our portfolio to reunite those fragments," by buying across any combination of DCI's 11 cable networks, she said.
But Campbell may face internal challenges, since one critic claimed that Discovery's corporate culture has bureaucratic flaws.
"Anytime they brought someone from the outside in, it's taken that person a long time to affect any change," he said. "And for the most part, they didn't last very long. Look at Jay Feldman."
Feldman, a CBS TV-station veteran, had a brief stint as general manager of Travel Channel.
In addition to Feldman, a number of top DCI executives have left recently. The company has yet to name a replacement for Jana Bennett, who exited as TLC's general manager to rejoin the BBC.
Campbell will relocate to Discovery's headquarters in Bethesda, Md., from Los Angeles.
"He's not a Hollywood guy who grew up in the business, whose father was an agent," Zakarin said. "He's from a small town in South Carolina. He grew up in Greenville, hunting and fishing."