Upfront and Center

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

It’s been that way since early on. After serving in the Air Force, a young Abruz-zese happened to meet an NBC executive in a New York bar. On the strength of his moxie, the suit offered him a job managing overhead budgets. From there, he worked his way up to sports sales. After jumping to CBS in 1980, he advanced to president of ad sales operations. Abruzzese remained at the helm of CBS network sales until 2002, when he made the daring leap to cable and Discovery.

“Joe is very passionate about his work, but he has done a full merge of his professional life and personal life,” Zaslav explains. “Those are the people he wants to be around. He has a great life because he’s found a great career and great friendships and they feed off of each other.”

Zaslav won’t entertain the idea of a Discovery without his sales capo. “I told Joey there’s one word you can’t say around me, and that’s the ‘R’ word,” he says. “I told Joe, ‘We leave together.’ He’s going to be here for a long time.”

There are many reasons why the prospect of going it without Abruzzese would keep Zaslav up at night. In 1992, when he was running ad sales for CBS Sports, Abruz-zese found himself in the enviable position of overseeing the network’s Super Bowl XXVI inventory. Early in the game, while sitting with Anheuser-Busch’s longtime sports and media czar, Tony Ponturo, word comes that Budweiser’s first ad in the game has misfired.

Midway through the 30-second spot, the feed broke off, and now August Busch III is on the phone from Florida—and to say that the beer scion was unhappy would be to traffic in grave understatement. Understandably vexed himself, Ponturo tells Abruzzese he can have the Nicole Miller tie he’s wearing if he can get him out of this jam.

Abruzzese starts working the phones, and his reps in L.A., Chicago and Detroit all report the same thing: The ad looked fine from here. A call to CBS’ New York studio confirms that the spot was transmitted cleanly.

But rather than confirm everything had checked out, Abruzzese heads to the truck and asks that they run the ad one more time, preferably during a timeout—no yelling, no threats, no wheedling. Abruzzese simply asked politely, and he and the Anheuser-Busch marketing team were rewarded with what would prove to be the first isolated 30-second commercial in Super Bowl history.

“The next day we get the report back and it says the feed to the bottom third of the country broke up, so we were right to do it,” Abruz-zese recalls. “We didn’t know it at the time, but sometimes you just have to take a flier. But Tony was so pleased by how we took care of him, the next year we did a three-year deal on a napkin. Because of the trust.”

There are challenges, even for some of the brightest stars in the Discovery constellation. Take the Investigation Discovery network, which has become one of TV’s great success stories, rocketing from the murky backwater of cable’s lower third to the No. 4 spot among the target demo, women 25-54. In the first quarter of 2012, ID beat the entrenched female-targeted channels Oxygen, Lifetime Movie Network and WE in adults 18-49, and if it can maintain momentum among the 25-54 set, it will find itself among cable’s top 25.

The trouble is, ratings spikes don’t necessarily translate to a concomitant boom in CPMs. It’s difficult to move the needle on legacy pricing, especially when your established rate is in the single digits and your GRPs keep soaring. “We have our work cut out for us,” says the net’s chief Schleiff. “But we have nine new prime-time series and a daytime block that will fill the soap opera gap, so all thepieces are in place for even stronger growth. I just hope the market can keep up.”

At the upfront rehearsal in New York, Schleiff is waiting for his cue. A few feet away, Abruzzese is effortlessly hitting his marks. Behind him, a slide demonstrates how the reach of the Big Four broadcast networks has plummeted 45 percent since 2006. “Yeah, keep buying broadcast,” Abruzzese cracks.

Broadcast may, in fact, be the key to springing ID’s upfront CPMs. Schleiff’s demos align neatly with those drawn to CBS, particularly when compared to high-value dramas like The Good Wife. Such is the disparity between that show’s $27 CPM and ID’s price—around $8 in prime—that marketers who want to connect with that cohort of viewers can find particular value in buying bulk.

As Schleiff practices a stunt with a Susan Lucci stand-in (Erica Kane will punctuate her ID pitch with a meticulously timed “slap” of the programmer’s face), Abruzzese slips backstage. A warren of sharp turns clogged with electrical cables, the area just behind the curtain gives way to a cinder block room.

Abruzzese can’t stick around for the remainder of the rehearsal, as he has an informal meeting at one of the bigger agencies. “We’re just going to compare notes,” he says, sidestepping James Cameron’s lethal robot, which, in repose, looks like a harmless piece of theater scaffolding. “We’ll see the budgets in mid-May, after the broadcasters get theirs.”

Pausing at the stage door, Abruzzese says he’s not about to make any predictions about the health of the upfront market until he’s had a chance to count the house. “When they get 80 percent of the money registered, we’ll make the call,” he says. “Without that, it’s a blind call.

“Remember, you don’t want to reduce this to just the numbers. This job is all about relationships. It’s about taking care of the client and living up to your word. And if the client uses more money to improve their business, using our airwaves? Everyone wins.”

He grins, pushes his shoulder into the door. And with that, Joe Abruzzese steps into the light.