End of an Era: Joe Abruzzese to Step Down as Discovery Ad Sales Chief

TV Veteran to Retire at Year's End

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Joe Abruzzese helped get 'Survivor' up and running at CBS.
Joe Abruzzese helped get 'Survivor' up and running at CBS. Credit: Discovery Communications
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TV's longest-serving ad sales boss is calling it a day after 46 years on the job.

Joe Abruzzese, Discovery Communications' longstanding president of advertising sales, announced this morning that he will retire at the end of the year, capping a career in which he established himself as one of the most respected and well-liked execs in TV. Stepping in to fill Mr. Abruzzese's handmade Crockett and Jones shoes is Ben Price, who has sold ad inventory for the Discovery networks for more than a quarter of a century.

Speaking to Ad Age earlier this morning, Mr. Abruzzese said he'd been planning his exit for some time, and that he'd established his succession plan back in March, when he consolidated the company's linear TV and digital ad sales units under his lieutenants Mr. Price and executive-VP Scott Felenstein. Having wrapped Discovery's upfront business with strong CPM and dollar volume gains, Mr. Abruzzese said the last order of business is to "finish the year strong and help Ben make the transition."

Mr. Abruzzese said that when he leaves Discovery at the end of the year, he has no intention to lead another network sales team. "This is pure retirement," he said, adding that he's likely to turn his attentions to one of the several charitable endeavors he supports. These include the National Kidney Foundation and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, where he holds a seat on the board of directors.

Unlike many sales execs who have given up the daily grind, the 68-year-old Mr. Abruzzese said he's not interested in hanging up his own shingle. "Giving my Rolodex a workout? Nah. Consulting's not really for me," he said.

Mr. Abruzzese informed his sales staff about his decision on Saturday evening, during a party he and his wife hosted at their home in the Hamptons.

In a statement released Monday, Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav was effusive in his praise of the outgoing sales capo. "Joe has defined what it means to lead with integrity, has made clients into friends, built the best ad sales organization in the business -- including our new leader, Ben Price -- and created fantastic value for Discovery and our shareholders," Mr. Zaslav said. "He is a great person, an incredible friend and on behalf of the Discovery leadership team, our board of directors and the entire Discovery family we say, 'thank you, Joe. You are the gold standard.'"

Getting 'Survivor' off the ground
Mr. Abruzzese joined Discovery in October 2002, after having served for 22 years in the CBS ad sales department. At the time he took the job with the Silver Spring, Md.-based outfit, he was the first broadcast sales chief to make the jump to a cable networks group.

In an internal memo to Discovery staffers, Mr. Zaslav noted that Mr. Abruzzese's unprecedented jump from the broadcast establishment to the wilds of basic cable "signaled the start of a new era" in the TV business. Since he first walked in the door 14 years ago, Mr. Abruzzese has tripled Discovery's ad sales revenue. (In 2015, Discovery's U.S. networks generated $1.65 billion in sales.)

"When I first got here, I thought maybe I'd stay three years, but I fell in love with the company, the culture and the people," Mr. Abruzzese said. "There used to be a saying, 'broadcast is bought and cable is sold,' and that's never been more true than it is here at Discovery. These guys sell every day."

Prior to joining Discovery, Mr. Abruzzese served for 11 years as CBS' head of ad sales, where he managed the network's entertainment, sports, daytime, news and late night divisions, as well as the UPN networks and CBS internet sales. Among the moments on his personal highlight reel include his pivotal role in the launch of the reality show that transformed CBS from the network that leaned heavily on shows like "Touched By an Angel" and "Walker, Texas Ranger" to the No. 1 network and a destination for younger, more upscale viewers.

When producer Mark Burnett brought "Survivor" to CBS, network boss Les Moonves charged Mr. Abruzzese with lining up a roster of sponsors to defray the costs of producing the logistically daunting, hitherto untested format. In no time at all, the sales exec had landed General Motors, Budweiser and the then-TV-averse Reebok -- five more sponsors would follow suit -- and "Survivor" was off to the races. It was a transformative moment for CBS, which would build on the success of "Survivor" with scripted franchises like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "NCIS."

As much as Mr. Abruzzese enjoyed his tenure at CBS, he often jokes that working under former Chairman and CEO Mel Karamzin "was like living through the first twenty minutes of 'Saving Private Ryan' every single day." Once, during an upfront in which CBS' rivals were all rolling back their upfront pricing, the volatile chief executive insisted that Mr. Abruzzese hold the line. "That took a good four years off my life," he cracks.

Before CBS, Mr. Abruzzese put in 10 years at NBC, where he worked in sports sales, planning and business affairs.

Mr. Abruzzese said he is confident that his successor has what it takes to lead Discovery's sales team into an ever more-profitable future. "Ben will continue the tradition of what we started here," he said. "He's the right guy for the job, and I think he'll be great."

Based in New York (he'll relocate from Los Angeles), Mr. Price will report to Chief Commercial Officer Paul Guyardo. "I am honored to take this position," Mr. Price said. "Joe is an incredible leader, friend and mentor, and I have been proud to work with him for the past 14 years. I look forward to continuing his legacy of providing the highest level of service to clients and value to the company, as well as to lead the best ad sales team in the business in creating exciting new opportunities for Discovery and our partners."

In the memo that was distributed to Discovery staffers, Mr. Zaslav characterized Mr. Price as "the perfect choice" to succeeed his mentor, before going on to note that, in the words of Mr. Abruzzese's childhood idol, Yankee great Yogi Berra, "It ain't over 'til it's over. … We'll look forward to having Joe's leadership and wisdom for a few more months, [and] we wish you nothing but happiness in your retirement."