Distribution Dynamo - Multichannel

Distribution Dynamo

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Lori McFarling has a husband, three kids, and, professionally speaking, four tigers. Her spouse is Tim Masters; their youngsters are Charlotte, 7, William, 5, and Joe, 2. The tigers are Comcast Corp., DirecTV Inc., EchoStar Communications Corp. and Time Warner Cable.

As senior vice president of distribution and marketing at Discovery Communications Inc., McFarling is responsible for helping manage the company’s accounts with the big cats of the industry, which combined serve 58 million subscribers, about 65% of the pay-TV market.

Distribution president William Goodwyn and McFarling have developed “the strategies to help us drive and push our business forward, whether sale initiatives, sales tactics, marketing programs.”

Goodwyn is complimentary of the partner he’s worked with for 15 years. “The nice thing is that [Lori] has the creative ability to be a very, very valuable asset in this business, but she also has the strategic ability, and a lot of people can’t balance both,” Goodwyn says. “She’s the key person I rely on to make sure that externally things are implemented and developed and also internally.”

Unlike TV stations, DCI’s 16 domestic networks don’t have mandatory cable and satellite carriage. Day to day, it’s up to McFarling and her staff of 30 to ensure affiliates continue to see the value in the relationship. Now in her 18th year with the Silver Spring. Md.-based company, McFarling was part of the team that launched Animal Planet, which reached 50 million subscribers faster than any other cable network in history. Reworking The Learning Channel into TLC involved taking the network from 17 million subscribers to more than 30 million in just two years.

Asked to cite her latest achievements, McFarling, like a coach who refuses to take any credit, says it’s “continuing to have the opportunity to be part of the team that has really pushed the distribution of all our U.S. networks.”

Still, the ledger shows, among other entries, that Travel Channel was the third-fastest-growing network in 2005, adding 5.2 million subscribers, while Discovery Health tacked on 2.9 million.

In the future, McFarling sees DCI continuing to emphasize high-definition content to satisfy the growing consumer base with HDTV sets. “We are still very focused on HD. It’s a critical component and a critical brand in our stable of networks,” she explains.

Discovery HD Theater launched in June 2002. At some point, McFarling predicts, HD will become the standard across the dial: “There will be some tipping point in the future ... where HD will be the expectation.”

With consumers turning to Apple Computer Inc.’s iPods, cell phones, and other portable devices for programming, Discovery also wants to be a player on those platforms. McFarling, though, does not see the square-inch screen supplanting habits formed over decades. “I think some of the portability devices are really for convenience and for incremental viewing. I don’t think a consumer would disconnect from cable or satellite just because they happen to have product that they can get and watch clips of shows over their telephone,” she says.

In response to regulatory pressure in Washington, operators are rolling out family tiers with G-rated content, including Discovery Kids, the Science Channel and FitTV, but not the widely popular Discovery Channel, which remains on expanded basic. “Time Warner and Comcast were certainly first out of the gate, but I think you’re going to see a lot of distributors come up with all different mixes,” McFarling says.

A college “intern queen,” McFarling worked for newspapers, TV stations and radio stations because she was “infatuated with all forms of media and also with politics.” While interning at a Denver TV station, McFarling said her interest in preparing the news waned after being exposed to management operations. “At that point, I really got hooked on the business side of TV,” she recalls.

After graduating from the University of Colorado in 1985, she worked as a sales representative Procter & Gamble Co., which turned out to be only a brief detour from her media career. “I got out of school and I was making $18,000 a year and I had a company car full of bars of soap and detergent samples,” she remembers. “I thought I had died and absolutely gone to heaven.”

But a hellish moment in the Los Angeles County jail brought her P&G career to a rapid close. “We were pitching them on a system-wide Tide detergent deal, and I got caught in a lockdown. After that, I decided, 'You know what, it’s probably time for me to follow my passion and to move in to a more TV and politics realm,’” she says.

McFarling packed her car and drove to Washington, D.C., where she soon landed a job with C-SPAN. “At the time, I was the happiest 24-year-old on the planet working at C-SPAN with Brian Lamb and Susan Swain.”

Swain and McFarling remain friends. “I can only think of Lori McFarling in terms of superlatives. She is one of those rare individuals who is enormously talented, incredibly successful, and yet remains wonderfully down-to-earth,” Swain says.

In 1988, McFarling made the move to Discovery. She and husband Tim, a media consultant and former jazz radio producer for 20 years, married in 1995. “I happened to meet my husband in the industry, so cable has been very, very good to me,” she says. Two years ago, McFarling’s third child arrived, forcing her to scale back volunteer work, which included aiding a Bethesda, Md., group that helps unemployed woman to find work. Like most parents, McFarling devotes her free time to getting her kids to Girl Scouts, soccer practice, and swimming lessons.

“When I’m not working, my time is entirely taken up with my kids,” she says, adding that minding the three kids is a team effort. “I think everybody juggles a lot of things, no matter what their role is. I am incredibly fortunate in that I have the most supportive husband in the world.”