Cable programmer Discovery Communications Inc. on Tuesday began its march into Hollywood by plucking a veteran TV executive to run its TLC cable channel, which it hopes to turn into a more popular destination for women.
The hiring of Angela Shapiro-Mathes, president of Fox TV Studios and a former Walt Disney Co. executive, represents a dramatic departure for the Silver Spring, Md.-based company. Discovery to date has largely operated outside the media power centers of L.A. and New York.
Shapiro-Mathes will work in Los Angeles, giving Discovery its first hub in Hollywood.
"This is where much of the programming is produced, and this is where we want to be," David Zaslav, Discovery's new chief executive, said in an interview during a visit to Los Angeles.
Zaslav has been shaking up Discovery since he arrived in January from NBC Universal. He gutted an underperforming educational division, shuffled programming schedules, eliminated employees and attempted to bolster Discovery's executive ranks by luring several executives from NBC Universal.
Shapiro-Mathes represents his highest-profile hire yet. The move signals Zaslav's willingness to spend money to ratchet up nonfiction programming production as part of his aggressive plan to build Discovery into a more significant media company. He also is looking to exploit the weaknesses of other cable channels that cater to women, such as Lifetime and Oxygen.
Currently the 24th most popular ad-supported cable channel, TLC has programs on home buying, decorating and style, including "Trading Spaces" and "What Not to Wear." More than 60% of its audience are women, but the company has not fashioned itself as a channel geared for them.
"We want TLC to be the top cable channel for women," Zaslav said. "It's a very strong channel, but it's going to get stronger. And Angela has all of the right experience, she's got creative instincts and she has successfully run several businesses."
Early in her career, Shapiro-Mathes co-founded the magazine Soap Opera Digest. She gained prominence at the ABC television network, at which she was in charge of the daytime schedule. At Disney, she also was a key architect of the SoapNet cable network and went on to run the ABC Family channel after the company bought it from Fox for $5.2 billion in 2001. She left Disney following philosophical differences with her bosses, including Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger.
At Fox, Shapiro-Mathes has overseen the production of such shows as "The Shield" for the FX cable channel and has established production studios in Britain, France and India. Her knowledge of foreign markets should come in handy at Discovery, which distributes its programming in 170 countries.
Shapiro-Mathes declined to comment. She announced to her staff late Tuesday that she was leaving, and Fox said it soon would announce her replacement.
Richard Greenfield, media analyst with Pali Research, said it was encouraging that Zaslav was making prominent hires so soon after joining Discovery. The Wall Street analyst said the move showed that high-caliber executives were making long-term bets on Zaslav's vision and the company.
"This just shows how quickly he is moving to reorient and redirect the company's strategy," he said, adding that Discovery, a joint venture launched by a group of cable operators, could no longer be considered "sleepy."
Last month, Discovery announced that it would buy the 25% stake in the company owned by Cox Communications for $1.3 billion in cash plus the Travel Channel. The acquisition is expected to close by mid-May.
That move will increase Liberty Media Corp.'s ownership of Discovery to more than 66% from 50%. Advance/Newhouse Communications owns 33% and founder John Hendricks holds 1%.
Greenfield said redefining TLC would be one of Shapiro's biggest challenges. "Hopefully she will be able to redefine its brand and give the channel a theme, a focus and a meaning," he said.
In doing so, Shapiro-Mathes will be going up against her former bosses at Disney, which owns half of Lifetime.
TLC has been growing its audience during the last year with such shows as "Little People, Big World." During the first quarter, TLC drew an average audience of 888,000.
But its programming is in flux. Zaslav recently moved "American Chopper," which was popular with men, to TLC from the Discovery channel. Zaslav said he planned to return Discovery to its original mission of chronicling the exploration of science and the world. The channel recently has scored a ratings hit with its "Planet Earth" series.