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The irony of David Zaslav’s ascent to the top of the as-yet unnamed WarnerMedia and Discovery combination is that had the Discovery CEO gotten this job at any other time in Hollywood history, he would have been the lowly outsider with no meaningful scripted experience, a purveyor of reality shows beneath the notice of the elite. He would have been in for a potentially fatal hazing.
But at this moment, many in the entertainment business are eager to be rid of the AT&T regime — led by CEO John Stankey and WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar — that seemed unwilling and unable to learn the language. So they’re prepared to welcome the head of the company that brings you 90 Day Fiance, House Hunters and Dr. Pimple Popper with wide-open arms.
“How can you not see it as a good thing?” says one veteran executive who does lots of business at Warners and is acquainted with Zaslav, 61, from his days at NBC. “David’s fantastic. He’s super smart. He has a firm understanding of the business but he also understands the media landscape of the future.” A top agent with lots of Warners history, asked how he feels about the changing of the guard, responds: “Like everyone, that it can only be better.”
But those who know Zaslav say the question will be whether a tough and often risk-averse leader can adjust his manner to the high-risk and often high-strung scripted world — and more importantly, whether he even wants to try. Zaslav, who inked a contract extension as Discovery CEO through at least the end of 2027, may not be well known in the scripted TV and movie business but he is part of a network of powerful media-connected executives.
He has been hosting regular Zoom calls with a group of maybe a dozen that includes Disney chairman Bob Iger, Access chairman Len Blavatnik, Universal Music Group chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge, Goldman Sachs senior chairman Lloyd Blankfein, former Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes, music industry mogul Irving Azoff, former HBO chief Richard Plepler. The calls are free-ranging, says a source with knowledge, covering everything from the stock market to turmoil in the Middle East. Another attendee of interest to the industry: Warners film studio chief Toby Emmerich, who got a shout-out from Zaslav at the May 17 press conference.
Zaslav is described as hardworking and smart or even brilliant, and taking over the WarnerMedia assets is a moment of triumph. But some of the many who have rotated through Discovery during Zaslav’s tenure were surprised and amused to hear him say in announcing the deal that his top priority is building “relationships with the creative community.” While industry insiders noted the promise of the dawn of a new day, some former Discovery execs rolled their eyes. They know Zaslav as a driver of very hard bargains who has grinded content creators while pulling in dizzying compensation. (He made $156 million in 2014 while Disney’s Iger got $46.6 million. In 2020, Zaslav took home $37.7 million.)
“He is perceived by the creative community that has supplied Discovery with content as somebody who unfairly squeezes them to their disadvantage and his advantage,” says one former Discovery exec. “It’s unclear what he’ll do with A-level talent, but the way he has treated the bread-and-butter suppliers that have made Discovery what it is — if that’s any harbinger of how he’s going to treat talent, it doesn’t bode well.”
As the biggest buyer of reality programming, Discovery is impossible for producers to avoid, though they say they try. A 2018 survey of nonfiction producers by the group NPACT gave Discovery networks relatively low marks on “respect” and “budget.” (The same group cited the flagship Discovery Network as one of the four most-favored to work with during COVID, partly because Discovery was sending shows back into production before other platforms.)
As a boss, Zaslav has been known to yell and curse at even high-level underlings. One ex-exec echoes several others in saying that he constantly questions his staff’s judgment. But former insiders say Zaslav has an inner circle of close advisers who have his confidence: CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels, chief corporate officer David Leavy, who “delivers the tough message or warns people” of trouble ahead; chief people and culture officer Adria Alpert Romm; chief development, distribution and legal officer Bruce Campbell; and JB Perrette, president and CEO of Discovery International. One former Discovery exec says Perrette is the most digitally savvy member of the senior team and might wind up with a big role in the merged firm.
One person who has made shows for Discovery and who admires Zaslav says, “He’s really, really tough. If he likes you, he loves you. And if he doesn’t like you, he doesn’t want to know that you exist. He’s a tough guy.” Zaslav isn’t “schmoozy,” this person says, adding, “I know he chews through people and they’re all scared of him.” But, he says,” When he really wants something, he’ll pay anything for it. I don’t think he wants to romance talent, but I would not underestimate his ability to convince people to work with him.”
Zaslav started out as a lawyer, but one associate says he hated the job and was advised by a mentor, “You can’t sit all day long and focus on one thing. You can’t sit still.” Having joined NBC in 1989, Zaslav rose through the ranks and jumped to CEO of Discovery in 2007. An early riser, Zaslav expects others to follow suit. Sources remember Zaslav setting a 5 a.m. breakfast in New York with a supplier who had flown in from Los Angeles and say West Coast execs had to attend 5 a.m. staff meetings.
While Zaslav is a skilled poker player, a former Discovery exec wonders whether he will have the appetite to wager big on scripted shows and movies. He has wagered big on acquisitions but tends to be risk-averse when it comes to spending on content. When it comes to the overall deals front, Discovery has felt pressure to spend more to keep talent like The Property Brothers at HGTV and the 90 Day Fiance producers at TLC. Guy Fieri’s recent deal to stay on for three more years hit the high eight figures.
But as one former insider notes, “Scripted is totally different from unscripted. You have to spend money, make pilots, kill pilots, play a long game.” This observer found it hard to imagine Zaslav rolling the dice on a movie costing hundreds of millions. Another wonders how Zaslav would have reacted to the idea of spending a fortune on HBO’s Game of Thrones. (Discovery’s just-announced “Game of Thrones With Otters” nonfiction series Otter Dynasty was probably a much easier call.)
Zaslav ventured into the scripted business in recent years — and then back out. In 2018, citing the burgeoning numbers of scripted shows, Zaslav said, “Our view is good luck with that. … We’re in the business of nonfiction.” He boasted that Discovery’s average cost of content was $400,000 to $450,000 an hour while others were paying $5 million or more (often much more). Scripted programming is “the red carpet, it’s the sexy actors and actresses, it’s the opening and it’s all the glare and all the glamour,” he said then. “That’s not us.”
But it is now. One Discovery vet says Zaslav is into cross-pollination of brands, speculating — maybe fancifully? — that the world might see HGTV redecorating the Batcave or a “Real Sex and the City” unscripted show. More seriously, this person doesn’t rule out the idea that Zaslav can adapt to the high-risk, high-rolling way of scripted films and TV. “The thing that motivates somebody to invest in content is if they feel in their heart that it’s going to be good,” this source says. “He doesn’t have that feeling in his heart. I’m not saying he doesn’t have the guts to do it. But it wouldn’t be driven by a sense, in a creative way, that it’s going to touch the zeitgeist.”
A version of this story appeared in the May 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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