Discovery Promotes O’Neill, Other U.S. Networks Execs

Discovery Communications has shuffled the deck at its U.S. Networks division, handing additional responsibility to brand captains Eileen O’Neill, Marjorie Kaplan and Henry Schleiff.

As part of a commingling of the two flagship networks under one business unit, O’Neill has been named group president, Discovery and TLC Networks. A 21-year Discovery veteran, O’Neill was appointed president and general manager of TLC in July 2008.

While a new TLC chief has not been identified, O’Neill is expected to tap a general manager in the next few weeks. TLC’s chief operating officer, Edward Sabin, will serve as acting general manager, while the search for a replacement is conducted.

Clark Bunting will continue to steer Discovery Channel as president and general manager, reporting to O’Neill.

After a four-year stint as the head of Animal Planet Media, Kaplan will add oversight of Science Channel to her list of responsibilities as president of the newly formed Animal Planet and Science Networks unit. Debbie Myers, general manager of Science Channel, will now report directly to Kaplan. 

Lastly, Henry Schleiff, president and general manager of ID: Investigation Discovery and Military Networks, will assume stewardship of emerging networks Planet Green and FitTV. Laura Michalchyshyn will retain her post as president and general manager of the two channels, reporting to Schleiff.

Discovery said that no jobs were made redundant in the reorganization.

In a note to staffers, Discovery president and CEO David Zaslav said the company is still attempting to determine “the strongest creative strategy for these networks to realize their full growth potential in the future.”

The restructuring reduces the number of high-level executives reporting directly to Zaslav. “The goal with these strategic changes is to have all levels of the organization infused with more creativity, innovation and risk taking, and to create a leadership structure that gives our top talent the authority to push our brands to their fullest,” Zaslav said. “In addition, I believe this structure will streamline decision making and boost creative collaboration. Under these executives’ strong guidance, I have no doubt that the best is yet to come for our U.S. portfolio.”

The news comes on the heels of a strong, if unspectacular, ratings year for the Discovery brands. The eponymous channel closed out 2010 as No. 12 among ad-supported networks in prime time, with an average nightly audience of 1.26 million total viewers. Discovery Channel was flat among the 18-49 set, averaging 674,000 in prime (No. 8).

Discovery also finished seventh among the 25-54 demo, growing 2 percent year-over-year with an average draw of 680,000.

TLC finished 18th among ad-supported cable nets in prime, averaging 1.1 million total viewers (up 3 percent from 2009), while claiming 13th place with the 18-49 demo (550,000) and 14th among those aged 25-54 (541,000).

Animal Planet improved its 18-49 deliveries 10 percent, marking the greatest growth among Discovery’s fully distributed outlets. ID chalked up the most impressive gains in 2010, soaring 64 percent in prime with an average delivery of 364,000 viewers, of which half were members of the 25-54 demo.

Analysts believe this will be a banner year for Discovery’s ad sales team. According to a new Beta Research survey, 46 percent of media buyers and advertisers said they planned to spend more money on the flagship channel in 2011. 

SNL Kagan projections are just as rosy. The researcher projects Discovery’s U.S. networks will get $1.32 billion in net ad sales this year, improving on last year’s haul ($1.17 billion) by some 13 percent.

The company’s most recent reorganization occurred just 13 months ago, when Bunting unseated John Ford as president and general manager of Discovery Channel. At the same time Discovery announced Ford’s departure, it said it would restructure its emerging networks along demographic lines. Schleiff was handed oversight of the male-targeted properties (Military Channel, Discovery HD and ID), while the female-friendly channels were packaged under Michalchyshyn.

Today’s reshuffling did not have any material impact on relative newcomers OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network and the kids-centric net The Hub.