Joe Abruzzese Discovery Channel
President, Advertising Sales, Discovery Communications
When Mark Burnett first approached CBS with the idea for Survivor as a summer series in 2000, CBS chair Leslie Monves loved the show’s idea but, at that time, the networks weren’t doing original summer fare. “There were no programming dollars for summer shows. We would always run repeats, which meant every dollar in advertising income was profit, since the network already owned the shows,” explains Joe Abruzzese, who was then president of media sales at CBS.
Burnett, who had already produced the successful Discovery Channel series Eco-Challenge, pressed further, asking, “What if I could help sell the advertising the way the Olympics does?” This, of course, meant lining up sponsors beforehand.
Moonves suggested that Burnett go talk to Joe Abruzzese and then challenged Abruzzese to find three sponsors to support Survivor. Abruzzese pitched away, selling Survivor to nine sponsors, seven of whom had never been on primetime at CBS. Sponsors got innovative perks: The Army got to stage an obstacle challenge, while clients like Budweiser, General Motors and Frito-Lay got their products used within the body of the show. The rest is TV history.
Now, Abruzzese works his ad sales magic as president of advertising sales at Discovery Networks, overseeing ad sales for the fourteen networks under the Discovery umbrella. In this down economy and in the age of DVRs, Abruzzese says the challenges are clear. “It’s not so much declining ad dollars,” he says. “It’s making sure advertisers get more for their dollar, more value.”
Just as Binford Tools was Tool Time’s sponsor on Tim Allen’s Home Improvement, Abruzzese worked with Home Depot when the chain wanted to sponsor Discovery’s home improvement show Trading Spaces.
“Lowe’s used to be the show’s sponsor,” recalls Abruzzese. “Through research, Home Depot realized it was missing an opportunity to get more bang for the buck. Home Depot approached us and Lowe’s did not step up, so we gave the exclusivity to Home Depot.” This meant Abruzzese’s team worked with the producers to make sure the show used all Home Depot products. Research showed that viewers knew Lowe’s used to be a sponsor and sponsorship shifted to Home Depot. “We also know that when you run an ad in conjunction with the product placement, the ad is a lot more memorable. It resonates with the viewer,” asserts Abruzzese. “The last piece of it is, in this world of DVRs where viewers skip advertising a certain amount of the time, you can never skip this.”
Another successful pairing of sponsor with programming involved getting Clorox to back the Discovery documentary The Vanishing Frog. Scientific research showed that bleach was helping to save some frogs from a deadly bacteria because the bleach killed the bacteria on shoes and other clothing items, preventing the microorganisms’ spread. “We approached Clorox and they loved the idea, so we actually produced the show with them in mind,” reveals the entertainment mogul.
Sometimes Discovery produces the commercials for the clients. “Acura was looking to sponsor the repeat of Planet Earth. We worked with them to produce a two-minute commercial that looked like it really belonged to the show itself, with footage of the show and so forth,” explains Abruzzese. “It was a rousing success, and when we did research that measured the audience fall from program to commercial, there was very little, so the viewer loved the idea of the commercial looking so much like it belonged to the show.”
Besides making products an integrated part of programming, Abruzzese has another trick up his sleeve at Discovery. “We sell the spot across all our networks at the same time. So if you buy an ad at 9 p.m. and it airs on the Travel Channel, it also airs at the same time on Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, etc. We call it the Mega-Buy,” the master of ad sales explains. “That’s probably the next generation of how we use all our assets.” Abruzzese states proudly that if the same commercial airs at the same time on all of those networks, it will probably beat NBC.