With recent (mainly retired) moguls like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bob Iger, Barry Diller, and David Geffen, there’s a void of notable people controlling studios. The industry established by flamboyant individuals and cutthroat power grabbers now has more pencil pushers than flash.
Welcome to the streaming wars, David Zaslav, the longtime Discovery cable television boss who just acquired WarnerMedia for $43 billion. Insiders think “King David” has the attitude and panache to shake up the entire industry. He’ll need it as rivals swoop in, A-listers yell, and powerful Hollywood labour unions oppose his every cost-cutting measure.
Former Hollywood executives agree that the industry’s sensuality comes with charisma, laser-like focus, and personality attributes. “When you chat to him, you forget about everything and feel like they only care about you.”
Insiders know Zaslav’s charisma forging relationships and threatening opponents to obtain what he wants. His charisma makes him one of the most well-connected business leaders — and someone you need to know.
Legendary tales. At his annual Labor Day party in the Hamptons, he hosts everyone from Lorne Michaels to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
He’s tied to a SCOTUS and at least two POTUSes. President Bill Clinton honoured Zaslav with a 2010 award for Discovery’s educational programming.
Zaslav’s ability to hold people’s attention was tested after obtaining the award at the annual Clinton Global Initiative. “It was strange watching Clinton walk in and he sucked the breath out of the room,” recalled one participant of that night’s VIP reception at the Sheraton Hotel. “They never looked up,” Zaslav said of his listeners.
The first CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery faces critics who are already lining up in what may be a brief honeymoon phase. His first important choice, appointing a board, garnered harsh criticism for not adding any Latinos, despite the Los Angeles headquarters being in an ethnically diverse region.
On Twitter, the National Hispanic Media Coalition used the new Warner Bros. Discovery logo, changing the motto from “The stuff that dreams are made of” to “Unless You’re Latino.”
Also, outside of New York and Washington, D.C., where politics, media, and business are ingrained, Zaslav is unknown. Others, like former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, were able to reach Main Street America.
Zaslav began his career in 1989 as a young NBC executive before becoming CEO of Discovery Communications in 2006. The Big Three networks dwarf the cable giant’s brands like Food Network, TLC, and Animal Planet.
Zaslav’s pay package topped $246 million in 2021, making him the highest paid executive of any American public corporation. Compared to Iger’s $54.9 million, Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s $32.5 million. Zaslav consistently tops the top earnings list, owing to both firm growth and mentor John Malone’s ownership.
When the acquisition was announced this spring, some Warner Bros. staffers rushed to their computers to search “Z-A-S-L-A-V.” One development executive stated a new employee started calling him “the Shark Week guy.”
In a headline a few years ago, CNN, owned by Warner, mocked the Discovery CEO: “Last year, David Zaslav made $156m. Who?”
They’ll find out soon enough.
The business is ready to cut $3 billion in costs, with Wall Street analysts privately describing the predicted layoffs as a “bloodbath” due to overlapping areas including broadcasting, marketing, and back office services. No official word yet, but the job cuts could surpass those made when Disney acquired 21st Century Fox’s entertainment division three years ago.
Zaslav is going on a multi-city listening tour to meet the 27,000 Warner Bros. employees facing layoffs. The new boss praised CNN’s Ukraine coverage and expressed optimism in the newly launched CNN+ streaming service, according to CNN employees.
His journey includes Warner Bros. operations in Atlanta, WarnerMedia/HBO offices in Culver City, and a company-wide town hall on the legendary Warner Bros. lot on Thursday.
The all-hands meeting is unlikely to be contentious, but a collective uneasiness is likely. “Optimization potential” means looking at everything from payroll software to third-party marketing spending, according to Bank of America media analyst Jessica Reif.
In her opinion, Gunnar is the best in the business. “Everything in the combined company will be scrutinised, and [Zaslav] is going through a difficult transition for the next six months.”
The new leadership team is aiming to remake the almost century-old Warner Bros. studio as the industry figures out when to distribute movies in cinemas and when to stream them.
Most Americans are enthralled by the intrigues of entertainment moguls, therefore CEOs like Zaslav will be prominent. Almost anyone with a computer or TV may watch Warner Bros. movies, HBO shows, and reality TV shows on Discovery.
“David has the charisma and determination to keep expanding and innovating the company,” said a banker familiar to the cable provider’s AT&T studio transaction. “The celebrity CEO era is here.”