He was working in sales at a fabric manufacturer when a chance meeting in a bar with a business affairs director at NBC got him his first TV job, doing budgets for the network.
"I said `I'll start as soon as I can' and from the moment I walked in in 1970 I knew I wanted to be in TV," he said.
Now president-advertising sales at Discovery Networks U.S., Mr. Abruzzese runs a team of 200 ad sales employees selling 14 domestic networks that range from the upscale Discovery Times digital channel to the more widely-watched The Learning Channel. In addition, they sell BBC America's airtime and new ad-supported services such as Discovery HD Theater.
"He is one of the most customer-focused executives in the media today," said John Costello, exec VP-merchandising and marketing at The Home Depot. The hardware chain has wide-ranging sponsorship deals with several shows in Discovery's stable-most notably TLC's "Trading Spaces" and "While You Were Out"-which have been pivotal in Home Depot's spending shift into cable. He credited "Joe's ability to marry deep industry knowledge with solid client relationships" as a key component in building Home Depot's partnership with Discovery.
"He is the consummate salesman," said Peter Olsen, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Grey Global Group's MediaCom.
In the three decades since his barroom meeting, Mr. Abruzzese rose in TV sales, first selling sports at NBC in the `70s. In the `80s he was persuaded to jump to CBS, where he landed the VP-sports sales job.
"It was the best job in all of television," back then, he recalls. In 1991, he was made president of all sales for CBS. When contract conversations stalled at CBS two years ago, Discovery came right in with an offer and sealed the deal.
The cable universe is an improvement on the broadcast networks, he says, a factor that was key in persuading him to make the switch.
"Two things would bother me. In the summer months, when ratings went down, I thought one day they wouldn't come back. And the prices are also so high," he says.
"Here I think people are more self-motivated," he added when asked to describe Discovery's culture. By the end of 2004, his second year at the network, Mr. Abruzzese will have increased revenues by 47%, according to those close to him. Although 2004 figures are not yet available, Advertising Age's top 100 media brands survey (AA, Aug. 23) shows Discovery revenue grew 12.8% for the 2002-2003 year to $1.2 billion, from $985 million in 2001-2002.
So what's Mr. Abruzzese doing differently there?
"What was needed was a little direction to emphasize what is really working," he said. "Cross-platform sales is something we really emphasize."
Cable networks have to fight harder for the dollars against network TV, said Mr. Abruzzese. "Network TV is bought, while cable networks are sold," is how he sums it up.
"He's regarded as the top sales guy in our business," said MediaCom's Mr. Olson, who has known Mr. Abruzzese for some time. "He's really inspired his team. He gave them something to believe in."
Name: Joseph Abruzzese
Title: President, advertising sales, Discovery Networks US
Challenge: He's trying to close the price gap with the broadcast networks and continue the migration of ad dollars from broadcast to cable
Play ball: Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, he badly wanted to make it as a baseball player. After graduating from Seton Hall University he realized it probably wasn't going to provide a career and so he headed to the New Jersey Air National Guard for six years.
Dress for success: "While on duty, I placed some feelers," he recalls. He wound up at J.P. Stevens Co., a textile firm. He enjoyed selling the shirt fabrics until he was switched to rainwear. "I hated every minute of it, too boring," says Mr. Abruzzese.
Learning from Mel: Some say a factor that led to his exit from the CBS was former Viacom boss Mel Karmazin's hard-charging style, though Mr. Abruzzese credits Mr. Karmazin with teaching him a few things. "Mel was a great taskmaster, but he taught you to find value in everything you sell. You were a better player," he said.
How to sell cable: "We sell the brand of the networks more than the individual shows. ... At CBS you're selling, say `Survivor' or `[Everybody loves] Raymond."'