As president and chief operating officer—and subsequently, chief executive officer—of Discovery Communications, Inc., from 1995 to December 2006, Judith McHale oversaw the worldwide expansion of the Discovery brand and image to 1.4 billion subscribers in more than 170 countries and territories. This unqualified success followed her years at the early days of MTV Networks, where she oversaw all legal aspects of their early brands and earned a reputation as a savvy dealmaker. A distinctive hallmark of her professional life is her strong commitment to corporate social responsibility. At Discovery, she created an appealing work-life initiative of generous parental leave and flexible work options for employees and established a fund that delivered free educational programming to thousands of students around the world. In 2004 Working Mother magazine named Discovery as one of the Top 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers and praised McHale for promoting a work culture “that helps those people stay focused and manage their lives.” The key to personal fulfillment, contends McHale, “is to find the right balance between pursuing your career goals and giving back to your community…I have always believed that both are possible.”
McHale was born in New York City. Her father, Edward McHale, was an American diplomat, and as a teenager Judith moved with her family to London and to Johannesburg, South Africa, where her father served as counselor of the embassy. “Living in South Africa during the days of apartheid and witnessing the inhumanity that political system inflicted on its people influenced my career choices,” she later said. After graduating from the University of Nottingham in England with a degree in politics, she worked as a producer and sales representative for Alton Films, a division of Columbia Pictures, prior to earning a law degree from Fordham University.
She began her legal career with the high-powered corporate law firm Battle, Fowler in New York, and subsequently served as special arbitrator for the New York City Transportation Authority. She then went to work for the fledgling MTV network, making her mark as a shrewd dealmaker with “an underlying respect for people that you don’t often see in this industry,” in the words of her friend and former MTV colleague Geraldine Laybourne. As vice president-law for MTV Networks, she was responsible for all legal aspects of MTV, Nickelodeon, and VH1. McHale joined Discovery in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1987, excited by the prospect of “taking a gamble” and “doing incredibly intriguing” programming. “I had a lot of the skills that they [Discovery] needed in those early days”—an entertainment law background (intellectual property, copyright, trademarks), the knowledge of how to structure affiliate deals, and a passion for diverse and unique programming. “When Discovery was ready to expand internationally, around 1989, which was two years after I got here, that was pretty easy for me to do.”
McHale helped turn Discovery Communications, Inc. into a cable television giant, with 1.4 billion subscribers in 170 countries and territories. She spearheaded acquisitions of TLC and the Travel Channel, and also was a prime force behind the partnership in the late nineties that led to the launch of BBC America. When McHale was asked in an interview about the BBC partnership, she called it “the most complicated deal ever,” which took three years to do and comprised coproduction of programming, the launching of channels in approximately 150 countries, and the startup of BBC America. “It was a large U.K. public-sector company meets entrepreneurial American satellite/cable company,” said McHale.
Discovery has also been an active participant in the Cable in the Classroom program, which provides schools across the country with free or low-cost cable service. “This is the best use of television,” said McHale in a 1999 Associated Press interview. “It is an incredibly powerful medium. If used appropriately, it can really enhance a child’s experience in the classroom.”
McHale oversaw the launch of the Animal Planet and Discovery Health Channel networks—as well as Discovery’s expansion internationally and digitally. Closer to home, she also made certain that her company employees were treated well. (The company moved from Bethesda to new offices in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2003.) Among the benefits provided: reserved parking spots close to the entrance for pregnant women, an on-site wellness center where employees can get physicals, seventeen-week job guaranteed leave (with nine weeks paid) for new mothers, flex work arrangements, and fitness club reimbursements.
McHale has received many awards over the years, including the National Cable Television Association’s Leadership Award, and she was named one of Cable’s Most Powerful Women by Cablevision Magazine. In 1999 she received the Congressional Leadership Award for her work on behalf of children. She has also served as a member of the Maryland State Board of Education and as chair of the board of directors of Cable in the Classroom and cochair of the National Campaign Against Youth Violence.
In the summer of 2006 McHale announced her resignation from Discovery, effective on December 1, 2006. In a statement she said that she wanted to take an active role in philanthropic and educational activities, although she plans to continue in an advisory role at Discovery and to serve as chairman of the nonprofit group Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership. (At the time of her resignation there was also some speculation that she would take a prominent position in running Hillary Clinton’s yet-to-be-announced campaign for president.)
“When I first came to Discovery, we were a small company with great ambitions. Today we are the leading provider of factual media in the world,” said McHale. “To put out a good product and have a positive impact on people’s lives? Hello, that’s a great opportunity.”