Discovery’s Zaslav: Businesses Can’t Look Forward Without Looking Back

Zaslav062410.bmp The Newhouse School at Syracuse University hosted day one of its “Monetizing Online Business” (MOB) conference today, and it opened with a discussion with David Zaslav, the president and CEO of Discovery Communications.

Discovery is one of the world’s largest media companies, and the world’s largest non-fiction media company. But like so many traditional media brands, it is still trying to figure out the best way to distribute its content on new media platforms.

“The glue for me is paranoia,” Zaslav said, before giving an anecdote about what can happen when a traditional media companies fails to anticipate how a new media company can disrupt it.

“One of my oldest friends in this business is [former MTV Networks president and CEO] Tom Freston. He created a brand, MTV, that changed the world, but he kept MTV vibrant and hip and cool every year,” Zaslav said. “At the same time they were programming MTV, MySpace and Facebook were developing. And without them really knowing it or focusing very much on it, that became the place where people went to see what was cool, what are people listening to, what they should be wearing.”

The takeaway is that even if you work at a non-fiction cable company, you should be aware of what is happening in the non-fiction space online.

And that is what Zaslav did. He says he googled a number of key terms that should have been right in Discovery’s wheelhouse, but saw that the web properties Discovery owned were not among the top search results.

The company decided to buy one of the websites that was near the top of many of those searches, Discovery leveraged its massive video library to enhance the site.

“We bought them, and with that we bought a huge text and photo library, and we have added a huge video library to that,” he said. “We aren’t winning there, because the web is so massive, but we are at least playing on it.”

Zaslav compared the current rise of new media to the origins of cable, which he was closely involved with when he was at NBC.

“In the early 90’s, one of the great programmers was [former NBC entertainment chief] Don Ohlmeyer, and I remember him making this argument to Jack Welch, who was running GE at the time,” Zaslav recalled. “He said ‘Zaslav and these crazy guys are wasting all this money in cable, what they spent on CNBC in the last six months I could have done two new pilots.'”

Cable at the time was a money-loser, but it has since become the most profitable of the television businesses. Consumers changed their behavior, and as a result the cable business flourished.

“You can’t be fooled by the money, you have to follow the behavior,” Zaslav said.