Anyone who’s sat with David Zaslav over the past 11 months—and that includes me—has received one message above all: Tell me what I need to know. Despite being a successful media executive for decades, the incoming Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. has executed a listening tour for the ages, chatting with everyone from Steven Spielberg to labor experts to lower-level agents. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zaslav interviewed the Polo Lounge custodial crew to determine the Hollywood community’s preferred fragrance of urinal cakes.
A lot of that has been for show, of course. Regardless of whether Zaslav actually takes anyone’s advice for HBO Max, Warner Bros., or CNN, he needs people in the creative community to think he’s been listening to them. Maybe he’ll spend more on content, like he says he will, or maybe he’ll spend less, or maybe he’ll decide that the Game of Thrones spinoff should be a jukebox musical in black and white—but at least he listened. How else would the notoriously frugal proprietor of 90-Day Fiance—someone who’s never really dealt with entertainment unions or top-tier talent, and who actually dared ask producers to take out loans to front their own production costs—be taken seriously? AT&T C.E.O. John Stankey and the phone company functionaries never did that basic ingratiation, and, during its four years of ownership, AT&T was greeted not as enlightened digital colonists but as an invading army of suits.
But now, as Team Zaz actually assumes full control, the $43 billion spinoff is set to close tomorrow, and AT&T’s value-destroying foray into media is unwound, none of that outreach matters much. Zaslav’s goodwill tour might have caused people to be cautiously optimistic about Discovery (or they’ve been battered into a curled-up fetal position by AT&T and are desperate for a savior), but saying the right things is ultimately just that, and the star-studded dinners at Bryan Lourd’s house won’t assuage hard feelings once Zaslav starts making actual decisions that piss people off.