The conventional wisdom has it that John Malone—or Dr. John Malone as he is referred to in public securities filings, presumably because of his Ph.D. in operations research from Johns Hopkins University—is the power behind David Zaslav’s throne, and that Malone will be the man pulling Zaslav’s strings as he prepares to take control of Hollywood’s latest flashy toy, Warner Bros. Discovery. And that might make some sense, at least in a New York-L.A. parlor game sort of way.
Malone, a multi-billionaire, was one of the pioneers in the cable industry and he remains a powerhouse through his various Liberty Media entities. He and Zaslav have been friends for decades, dating back to when Zaslav was an executive at GE, which then owned NBC, and he and Tom Rogers and Bob Wright and Jack Welch wanted to create what became CNBC. Zaslav’s first stop back then was to see Malone, in Colorado, to get his support for the new channel and to make sure that Ted Turner and CNN—Malone was a big backer of Turner and his cable news creation—had no intention of creating a competing business network. (He didn’t.) And, of course, Malone is also a member of Zaslav’s board of directors at Discovery and one of that company’s largest shareholders, with an economic stake equal to around 1 percent and a voting stake equal to around 20 percent. He has been an important mentor to Zaslav over the years, and one of his most enthusiastic backers.
But when the Warner Bros. Discovery deal is done and dusted, perhaps as soon as April, it will actually be Steven Newhouse, not Malone, who will be the biggest shareholder in Zaslav’s new company. Newhouse, now 65 years old, is the low-key and affable chairman of Advance Communications, best known for its ownership of Conde Nast—the publisher of The New Yorker, Vogue, and Vanity Fair (where I was a special correspondent for 13 years), among other publications. Advance also owns the company that sponsors the Ironman competitions and holds a majority stake in Reddit, the powerful online message board. But the bulk of the Newhouse family’s wealth, estimated by Bloomberg at around $19 billion these days, comes from its ownership stakes in cable companies, specifically Discovery and Charter Communications, in which it has a roughly 13 percent stake worth around $13.3 billion.