Upfront and Center

Discovery ad chief Joe Abruzzese prepares to go to the mat, and takes Adweek along for an insider's view


More recently, Abruzzese’s personal touch extended to one of the most visible members of the Discovery family. Just days before she was to appear at the New York upfront presentation, Abruzzese told OWN impresario Oprah Winfrey she needed only reassure clients that she was in it for the long haul.

Standing on the stage at the Jazz at Lincoln Center venue, Winfrey made a good impression on the throng of media buyers, humbly characterizing her stewardship of the fledgling network as an ascent up Kilimanjaro before striking a decidedly positive note. “With our restructuring and right-sizing and getting into the sauce of what needs to happen every day, I feel like I can at least now see the summit,” Winfrey told the crowd.

Immediately following the presentation, Winfrey hosted a dinner next door at the restaurant Asiate for eight prospective clients. Abruzzese joined the group after a few circuits of the Discovery meet and greet. “They did a good job. [OWN evp, ad sales] Kathy Kayse laid out the list of clients who should be there, drawing from the top 10 accounts that buy TLC but aren’t on OWN yet,” he says. “So at least they got a chance to meet Oprah and hear more about her vision for the channel. That’s all you can do—just set the table.”

Back to the upfront preparations, Ian Parmiter is convinced he can keep Discovery’s pitch under the 105-minute mark. Infamous for being the most time-consuming presentation on the spring calendar, the annual Discovery expo often seems to drag on longer than a screening of The Hunger Games.

Parmiter, svp of marketing for Discovery ad sales and the newly appointed head of integrated marketing for OWN, also helps choreograph the company’s song and dance for the ad community. “Joe, we’ve shaved 15 minutes off the Chicago show,” he tells his boss. “I’m sure we can get it down to an hour forty-five.”

At the upfront run-through in New York, Parmiter is trying to condense the 13-network showcase. Abruz-zese flips through the script, scans the names of the 45 guests slated to make walk-ons and tells Parmiter he has no shot at bringing the show in under two hours. “You’re going to have Henry [Schleiff] on a stage in New York,” says Abruzzese, referring to the garrulous president and general manager of Investigation Discovery and Military Channel. “He’s going to speak longer than he did in Chicago.” When Parmiter demurs, Abruzzese proposes a wager: “One of my good [ties] versus one of yours.” Parmiter will end up minus one necktie, as the curtain falls on the show a few ticks past two hours.

Having already engineered a full upfront presentation the previous week, this final cram session lacks a certain kind of urgency. Still, Parmiter is concerned about some of the talent—plus a somewhat balky droid that will introduce James Cameron’s new Discovery Channel project Robogeddon. “It’s never a matter of getting just one thing right,” Abruzzese says. “It’s true with sales, it’s true with sports, it’s true with everything. You have to do a hundred things right if you want to win.”

While deal making in the crush after an upfront is largely extinct, there is much riding on the New York show. Not only does it serve as a formal introduction to the next 18 months of programming, it also provides a sort of unity of impression. Clients are human, and are just as likely to be wowed by pyrotechnics and slick presentations as anyone.

Continue to next page →