On September 1, Vanity Fair released its 2010 “New Establishment” list, the buzzed-about ranking of cultural heavyweights based on power and prestige, and there for the first time, sandwiched between Les Moonves and George Clooney, at No. 65, was Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav. It should have been a celebratory day for the bespectacled, barrel-chested Zaslav—three years after being named Discovery’s CEO, and following more than a decade serving as a chief lieutenant to Bob Wright at NBC, Zaslav had arrived in his own right.
But instead the day turned out to be one of the most terrifying any media executive has ever had to deal with, and the unquestioned worst of Zaslav’s career, thanks to a deranged environmental extremist named James J. Lee, who, angry about the company’s programming “filth,” held three Discovery employees hostage at gunpoint at its Silver Spring, Maryland, headquarters before being fatally wounded by police officers. (The hostages emerged from the incident unscathed.)
While lawsuits, boycotts, picket lines, and even death threats are routine matters for executives at companies such as News Corp. or Viacom, the incident was unlike anything ever experienced before at Discovery, an unfortunate byproduct of the unprecedented popularity the company’s networks have gained from Zaslav’s push to take more programming risks. Put another way, popularity begets problems, and as Zaslav grows Discovery from a suite of niche cable networks with mild appeal into a dominant collection of channels watched by a critical mass of viewers, he has found himself dealing with controversies and adversaries previously foreign to the company.
For instance, children’s watchdog groups, long an advocate of Discovery programming, are urging parents to not let their kids watch The Hub, a new network created by the company in partnership with Hasbro that debuts on Sunday, claiming that it is little more than an extended advertisement for the toy maker’s products. Sister Wives, a reality show documenting the lives of a polygamous family that recently debuted on TLC—one of 13 networks owned by Discovery in the U.S.—has drawn the ire of longtime ally Parents Television Council, whose founder Brent Bozell wrote in a recent column that, “TLC started as The Learning Channel; it’s fast becoming The Libertine Channel.” In addition, the family that stars in the show, the Browns, could potentially face prosecution because bigamy is a felony in Utah, where the show is shot.
Zaslav, however, remains undaunted.
“Shows like Sister Wives work for the TLC brand,” Zaslav said in an interview from Discovery’s New York outpost this week after returning from a two-week business trip to Moscow, Istanbul, and Wales. “Rather than following the traditional route of developing programming similar to what’s already on, we’re thinking about how we can nourish the brand, and sometimes it’s OK to do that aggressively.”
The flagship Discovery Network is facing a major problem of its own, with three stars of the hit crabbing show, Deadliest Catch, vowing not to return for the seventh season, which is set to begin filming next week, after being slapped with a $3 million lawsuit by the channel for failing to complete work on a spinoff special. Another star, Capt. Phil Harris, died during filming the previous season. Zaslav declined to comment on the lawsuit. But a second Discovery source who asked to remain anonymous says that the two sides are in talks about a settlement and that a deal to return the three stars to the show could be announced as early as today. This source added that the stars’ walkout, which is widely viewed as a negotiating tactic to extract more money from Discovery due to the success of Deadliest Catch, is a “relatively new phenomenon that we have to deal with.” Update: As expected, Discovery and the three stars from Deadliest Catch—Capt. Sig Hansen, and Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand—announced Friday that they reached a deal to return to the show. The three stars will also appear in a spinoff series called Hillstranded as part of the deal.
“In aggregate, we’re not that controversial at all,” says Zaslav. “You’re talking about a few instances from a few shows in a company that owns more than 100 networks worldwide. In reality, we have been incredibly quiet and stealth.”
But Zaslav, who has tripled Discovery’s stock price since becoming CEO in 2007, is taking perhaps the biggest risk of his career with two big projects in development that so far have been the exact opposite of quiet and stealth—to be sure, next month’s debut of Sarah Palin’s Alaska and next year’s launch of the OWN network with Oprah Winfrey have been loud and attention-grabbing.
The troubles in getting OWN off the ground have been well-documented, which is testament to the attention the once-sleepy Discovery is now getting from the media. OWN has made headlines for everything from management turnover and indecisiveness about what shows to develop to launch delays and last week’s cover story on Winfrey in Fortune magazine, where the queen of daytime TV publicly revealed that she struggled with her own commitment to the network and how she “wasn’t pleased at all” when Zaslav asked her to forsake broadcast television to focus more fully on the partnership. Though he incurred Winfrey’s wrath, Zaslav got his way.
“The partnership has been a strong one and David has been a steadfast partner, even in the early days when OWN sought to find its voice,” says former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, who is advising Winfrey on the channel. “It’s in a great place and in great shape right now. When David comes around, everyone’s energy and morale perks up.” But then again, the network doesn’t launch for another three months and this is the media business, where inspiration can quickly turn into insipidness and strong bonds often devolve into weak links.
According to independent board member Larry Kramer, the former president of CBS Digital Media, the Oprah partnership characterizes Zaslav’s fearlessness and clear vision for how to remake Discovery’s underperforming networks—OWN will replace what was once known as Discovery Health, just as Investigation Discovery replaced Discovery Times, Planet Green replaced Discovery Home, and The Hub replaced Discovery Kids.
“Getting into business with Oprah says a lot about their willingness to take chances and their understanding that big success means taking big risks,” Kramer says.
Developing a show with Sarah Palin is less a risk than creating a network with Winfrey, but it is a risk nonetheless. Where OWN, which won’t debut until January 1, has already attracted blue-chip advertisers like General Motors, Nissan, and Procter & Gamble, no advertisers for Sarah Palin’s Alaska have been revealed for its debut next month. Zaslav says that TLC is “seeing a significant amount of support from the advertising community for Sarah’s show,” but didn’t name any companies in particular. According to one advertising industry executive who asked to remain anonymous, clients at this source’s firm are waiting to see the tone and tenor of the show before making a commitment. While Palin’s show isn’t expected to espouse a political viewpoint, the former vice-presidential nominee’s personality is so polarizing that it is certain to draw as much ire and criticism as it does joy and praise.
Next month’s debut of Sarah Palin’s Alaska and next year’s launch of the OWN network with Oprah Winfrey have been loud and attention-grabbing.
“We don’t make judgments on shows based on whether we agree with the values, political position, or philosophy,” Zaslav says. “Our No. 1 mission is to serve the audience with shows that are on-brand for the network they air on. Personal views have to be sacrificed in order to serve the viewers and the brand.”
And Zaslav, unlike most media executives, actually means what he says. Not even family resistance can influence his programming decisions. Indeed, Zaslav’s own daughter strenuously objected to his getting into business with Palin, but he gave the show a green light anyway. Now that’s risky.
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.