Discovery Boss Bunting Hangs It Up

End of an era as longtime exec calls it quits

Leading off with the simple declaration, “It’s time,” longtime Discovery Channel executive Clark Bunting announced his retirement today.

One of the very first hires at the Silver Spring, Md., media company, Bunting has put in 27 years at Discovery. Among the signature initiatives he helped launch during his tenure are: the annual rite of summer, "Shark Week"; the stand-alone learning/lifestyle network TLC; and the Discovery suite of digital nets (Science Channel, Investigation Discovery, Military Channel, etc.).

Bunting will step down from his current post as president and manager of Discovery Channel when his contract expires in March 2012. As such, the company has ample time to identify a worthy successor.

“I have come to the place where I feel I have accomplished what I wanted to do, and I'm ready to direct my energies to the next chapter in my life,” Bunting wrote this morning, in a memo distributed to Discovery staffers. “I want to take all this great experience and use it to give back; possibly in education or the nonprofit sector. Or somewhere else that simply feels right.”

In a joint statement, founder John Hendricks and president and CEO David Zaslav said Discovery would literally not exist if Bunting hadn’t come along in 1985 when the venture was still known as the Cable Educational Network.

Bunting has served in his current capacity since December 2009 when a major reshuffling of the executive suite sent John Ford packing. 

While it’s premature to make odds on who will step in for the well-respected Bunting, recent history favors a high-placed female executive. Women have thrived under Zaslav; in fact, the heads of two of the three primary programming units are Eileen O’Neill (group president, Discovery and TLC) and Marjorie Kaplan (president, Animal Planet).

Other Discovery higher-ups include Debbie Myers (general manager, Science Channel), Laura Michalchyshyn (president and general manager of Planet Green and FitTV), and Margaret Loesch (founding CEO of the Hub, a joint venture with Hasbro).

And, of course, there’s that daytime talk show host from Chicago who calls the shots at OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Geography may be the sole impediment in the way of Discovery landing a top-flight outsider. Blue chip TV vets like History/Lifetime boss Nancy Dubuc and former MTV CEO Judy McGrath are unlikely to uproot their New York clans for the swamps of D.C. Recruiting a Los Angeles-based suit presents similar challenges.

With an eye toward “leaving things better than the way you found them,” Bunting said he will help select a successor.

In the first quarter of 2011, Discovery notched a 9 percent increase in ad revenue, on sales of $290 million. Affiliate revenue was up 6 percent to $274 million. Minus a one-time bookkeeping gain related to OWN, Discovery’s earnings rose 20 percent to $305 million.

Discovery’s overall U.S. Networks revenue was up 8 percent from a year ago, to $587 million.

Last year, the company boosted its consolidated revenues to $3.77 billion, an improvement of 9 percent versus 2009. The stateside media networks grew 9 percent to $2.36 billion, on ad sales gains of $1.22 billion (up 13 percent year-over-year).