Peter Liguori is departing as Discovery Communications Inc.'s chief operating officer, Discovery said on Wednesday, shortly after he gave up oversight of OWN: the Oprah Winfrey Network along with several of the company's other new channels.
Liguori, an entertainment industry veteran who joined Discovery at the start of 2010, helped launch OWN, a joint venture with Ms. Winfrey, this past January. He served as the channel's CEO briefly this past summer after Discovery fired the previous CEO, Christina Norman.
But when Winfrey—fresh off her syndicated talk show—took over that role this summer, bringing two top executives from the TV unit of her Harpo Productions Inc. with her, Liguori had to step back from the network and became much less involved in day-to-day affairs.
During his time at Discovery, Liguori also oversaw the launches of Discovery's other joint ventures, including The Hub—a kids' channel it owns with toy company Hasbro Inc.—and 3net, a 3-D channel it launched with Imax Corp. and Sony Corp. But once those channels had executives in place to run them, Liguori felt like there was no longer enough of a distinct role for him at the company, people familiar with his thinking said, so he began pursuing new opportunities, which triggered Wednesday's announcement.
Discovery is eliminating the chief operating officer job.
Liguori didn't return calls for comment Wednesday but in a statement he said, "My time at Discovery has been incredibly rewarding." His contract with Discovery wasn't due to expire until early 2013.
Most of Discovery's big TV networks are performing strongly, helping the company post higher revenue and profits in the third quarter. But the company has had challenges with OWN. Since launching, the network has drawn 10% fewer total day viewers on average than the little-watched channel it replaced, Discovery Health, according to Nielsen.
OWN's target audience of women 25 to 54 years old watching during prime-time rose 12.5% last month compared with Discovery Health's performance during the same time period in 2010, boosted by the debut of two high-profile programs including a talk show hosted by Rosie O'Donnell and a show featuring Winfrey called "Oprah's Lifeclass." Still, its total prime-time audience last month was roughly flat when compared to that of Discovery Health the year prior and was 30% lower than the audience OWN drew in its debut month on the air.
Those ratings may cause problems down the line for OWN. SNL Kagan, a research firm, projects that the subscriber fees that cable and satellite operators pay to carry OWN will fall to five cents per subscriber per month this year and down to three cents next year, down from the seven cents Kagan estimates they paid last year for Discovery Health. In addition, Kagan estimates that with programming costs rising sharply, OWN will lose about $55.6 million before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization this year and $67 million next year, compared with the $23 million to $28.8 million Discovery Health made in its final two years on the air.
Discovery declined to comment on Kagan's estimates.
While the slow profit growth and ratings are expected for a start-up, the numbers have disappointed the bullish expectations the television industry had for a channel run by one of television's biggest personalities—something Liguori grappled with during his time at Discovery, much of which was spent helping OWN survive its troubled infancy.
Although he initially worked out of Discovery headquarters in Maryland, he quickly began spending most of his time at OWN's offices in Los Angeles, working from there three to four days a week to help get the network off the ground and providing stability when its president and several executives left in 2009.
In a statement Wednesday, Discovery's chief executive David Zaslav, who recruited Liguori for the chief operating officer job, said he was thankful to Liguori for getting those new channels off the ground. "I am particularly grateful to Pete for tackling some pretty challenging special assignments, including the launches of our joint-venture networks."
This story originally appeared on WSJ.com.