Discovery chief David Zaslav transforms television company

Zaslav says that the partners are determined to produce high-quality shows. "Kids are smart, and creating an infomercial about a toy wouldn't work — and we wouldn't allow that to happen," he says.

Discovery needs to stay on good terms with parents and kids: One of its fastest-growing businesses is Discovery Education. Subscribing schools get streamed video clips that illustrate lessons that their state's mandated curriculum requires them to teach. The service, which recently became profitable, serves 60% of all schools that have computers in their classrooms, and 90% of the ones that use a streaming video service.

That pipeline to the classroom could become quite valuable as schools increasingly see online services as economical, engaging and always-current alternatives to textbooks. Discovery is already considering potential partnerships with textbook companies.

Discovery "has bitten off a lot" with its far-flung initiatives, Malone says. That means, "The challenge now is execution."

To address that, Zaslav has called on a Murderers' Row of cable executives to rival the 1927 Yankees and has given them wide latitude to run channels as independent businesses. For example, he has former Viacom CEO Tom Freston advising OWN, former Fox Kids chief Margaret Loesch running the new venture with Hasbro, and former Court TV and Hallmark Channel chief Henry Schleiff at Investigation Discovery.

Meanwhile Zaslav immerses himself in a frenzied schedule of meetings and trips to sets of his TV productions, where he's simultaneously cheerleader, counselor and decision-maker.

"The CEO shouldn't be doing everything," Wright says. "But the CEO is responsible for creating morale, high expectations and making sure that people are able to do things: You can't ask people to do things if they don't have the resources and the know-how. And he seems to have pulled together that organization in such a fashion that they've been able to do some very clever and successful things."

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