The Panic in Zazworld

David Zaslav
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty
Dylan Byers
March 25, 2022

One year ago, David Zaslav, the C.E.O. of Discovery, and John Stankey, the C.E.O. of AT&T who oversaw its ill-advised conquest of the WarnerMedia assets, met for breakfast at a rented Greenwich Village townhouse to start formally discussing what would become one of the biggest media mergers of the decade. Two weeks from Monday, they will officially close that deal, giving birth to a new, Zaslav-led media giant with ambitions to rival the likes of Netflix and Disney. The close of the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger, and the launch of Warner Bros. Discovery, will take place on April 11, sources familiar with the matter tell me. Zaslav and his team are currently making plans to ring the bell on the Nasdaq stock exchange that morning.

While the creation of Warner Bros. Discovery is now guaranteed, the organization’s corporate structure remains a mystery—even to the vast majority of executives and high-level staff who are poised to be promoted, demoted, or kindly shown the door in the days and weeks after Zaslav takes the helm, sources at WarnerMedia and Discovery told me this week. In the absence of any clear information about the forthcoming org chart, current and future Zaslav lieutenants have adopted a game of high-anxiety telephone, frenzied tea-leaf reading, panic-texting, and trading whatever gossip they can pick up from friends and colleagues. Some even ask me what I’ve heard, as if I work in WBD H.R.

The rumor and speculation went into overdrive this week with the publication of an anonymous Reddit post purporting to show the company’s “potential leadership structure.” The document, I am reliably told, is mostly bullshit but not entirely off base. What makes it notable, in the absence of any better intel, is that it is being passed around and examined by many of the very same people whose names are mentioned within. Most of these folks recognize that there are aspects of the document that don’t make sense, and as highly-paid media executives, they all know that sharing a Reddit post is beneath them. They also know that whoever wrote it clearly appears to have some insight into Zaslav’s thinking and his general plans for how to run the organization. (A Discovery spokesperson declined to comment.) Ironically, the Newhouse family, which will own about 8 percent of the new Warner Bros Discovery lockup, is the majority owner of Reddit.

The Reddit affair captures, in many ways, the mood of the moment as Zaz transitions from conquering hero—the man who vanquished the Dallas beancounters back to their boring country clubs and Hickey Freeman wardrobes—to the executive responsible for what’s next: a new exciting media conglomerate, sure, but also paying down heaps of debt, finding billions in synergies, and moving the sluggish stock price. It’s no wonder, then, that executives and their direct reports would be anxiously searching for reassurance or direction, even from a document that gestures toward reality but falls apart under closer scrutiny.

For instance, the post accurately suggests that Zaslav will consolidate “distribution, commercialisation and licensing” for all Discovery and WarnerMedia entertainment units under one roof, but more quizzically states that this Global Entertainment unit will be led by Tony Gloncaves, the chief revenue officer for WarnerMedia. It states that Andy Forssell, the head of HBO Max, will run the direct-to-consumer streaming unit, when in fact that role is more likely to go to J.B. Perette, the president & C.E.O. of Discovery streaming and international. The post correctly notes, as I’ve reported, that HBO/HBO Max programming chief Casey Bloys will report directly to Zaslav—the document spells his name “Saslav” here—but oddly puts Bloys in charge of an extensive portfolio that includes Turner Sports and Discovery networks.

Meanwhile, the Reddit post does not answer some of the most pressing questions that have consumed Hollywood in recent months. First, will WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group chairman and C.E.O. Ann Sarnoff leave the company or accept a new position that effectively amounts to a layering? As I’ve reported before, Sarnoff will not keep her current post. Stankey was a fan of Sarnoff and made a personal plea to Zaslav to keep her at the company, or at least give her a grace period, sources with knowledge of that conversation said. His counsel stands in contrast to many Hollywood executives who have been advising Zaslav to get rid of her. (The Reddit post says that Warner Bros. Pictures chairman Toby Emmerich will be replaced by former Paramount Pictures chief Emma Watts—who knows!?—but doesn’t say whether Emmerich will hold onto his New Line label in the event this takes place.)

Finally, the post makes no mention whatsoever of Kathleen Finch, the Discovery chief lifestyle brands officer who, according to my sources, is poised to expand her portfolio at the new company to include Turner Networks and HLN, the half-news, half-true crime CNN sister channel.

At the very least, the post correctly names Chris Licht as the future president of CNN, and rightly notes that he will report directly to “Saslav.” It says nothing about Licht’s own plans for CNN, where high-level executives are dealing with their own anxieties about the future. Sources familiar with the matter tell me that Licht has already started surveying the market for someone who might potentially replace Andrew Morse as the head of CNN Digital and CNN+. That is a job that requires a wide range of skills and a deep understanding of the CNN business, so whether Licht finds that new deputy or sticks with Morse is “TBD”—a state of play that might very well be applied to many of the former lieutenants in the old Jeff Zucker regime.  

The more pressing challenge for Licht may be identifying his head of programming. Michael Bass, the executive vice president of programming under Zucker, and one of the three interim leaders to steady the ship over the last two months, had long been planning to leave the company at the end of the year when his contract expires—even before the Zucker imbroglio occurred, sources familiar with the matter said. (Bass did not respond to a call requesting an interview.)