Zaz & His Ax Man

David Zaslav
Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav. Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
June 17, 2022

Wall Street has been promised a more svelte Warner Bros. Discovery, which is staring down a recession with about $55 billion in debt, and C.E.O. David Zaslav is moving aggressively to trim the fat. Zaz and his ax man, C.F.O. Gunnar Wiedenfels, have been unflinching in their drive to “identify synergies” which seems to be all the more pressing after J.P. Morgan downgraded the WBD stock earlier this week, sending it down to around $14 a share. The cuts started, of course, with the infamous decision to kill CNN+ before it ever really got a chance to prove itself, and were soon followed by cuts to scripted programming at TNT and TBS, and, most recently, about 30 percent of the ad sales staff, or nearly 1,000 jobs.

Needless to say, Zaz and Gunnar have a lot more work to do to get to their $3 billion savings target, and this understandably has a lot of people inside the company in a state of panic. Most anxious today, it seems, are members of the HBO Max unscripted team that is responsible for reality shows like FBoy Island and The Hype. In fact, some of these employees are so concerned that they started leaking news my way that layoffs would be announced today. Perhaps they were just testing the waters, because I’m reliably told that there are no plans to announce layoffs today. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that in the near term, their concerns are well-founded. Discovery already has various teams who are poised to expand control of unscripted—which is why Turner unscripted chief Corie Henson is also leaving the company. Some synergies are hard to identify, others are obvious. 

By the way, lest there was any concern, the impending layoffs at HBO Max unscripted will almost certainly not extend to HBO Documentaries, a crown jewel that certainly means too much to HBO, and Zaz, to ever be disbanded. Presumably Zaz understands the immense value that division brings to the awards space and the cache it garners around town. Documentaries and unscripted can have incredible R.O.I., but you don’t need multiple studios producing the same kind of work within a single publicly traded entity. 

The question, though, is whether this strategy applies to CNN Films. Many in the industry have long assumed that it would, and yet in Chris Licht’s company-wide town hall yesterday he assured staff that there would be no layoffs at CNN, sources present for the meeting told me. Needless to say, that was reassuring to all CNN staff, but I’m a bit surprised given the obvious synergies between CNN Films and HBO Documentaries, and how aggressive Zaz is being. It’s also possible that this is the case for now. Gunnar is developing a reputation around town quickly as a punctilious and scrupulous and merciless beancounter who knows how to manage the efficiencies. If money can be saved, it will be, so long as the business units can still operate effectively.

Inside the Lichtverse

During his town hall, I’m told that Licht was clearly trying to quell the anxieties of producers and talent who, as I reported this week, are constantly second-guessing whether they align with his vision for a more respectful, less polarizing, less Twitter-left-friendly CNN. For instance, Licht said he was happy with the tone of the network overall, and commended CNN for booking guests from various political backgrounds, the sort of people who the network might not have invited on in the past. (I’m sure Jeff Zucker would take issue with that characterization.) 

Licht also sought to rebut the notion that any of his edicts about the new, less hair-on-fire CNN were being pushed by John Malone, the powerful Discovery shareholder, Zaz mentor, and Fox News fan who famously called for CNN to get back to doing journalism. Licht told employees that he’d never met Malone and wouldn’t recognize him if he were sitting in the audience. The first part may be true, the second part obviously isn’t, and either way Malone has already exercised his influence. But lest there were any concerns about CNN being too accommodating to Republicans in order to appear bipartisan, Licht emphasized that it was always going to be important for the network and its talent to call out “bullshit,” and that if one organization or party was peddling more “bullshit” than the other side, that side would get called out more.

Licht also hit back against the leaks emanating from the CNN newsroom regarding internal anxieties about his leadership, noting that anyone who leaks does so to push an agenda that doesn’t necessarily benefit the company. Leaks are, of course, a feature of rocky leadership transitions, most notably when the people involved are journalists. And they are also part of the stock and trade of what CNN does for a living, so it’s likely that many in the town hall got the message, but also realized that Licht, always a mega-talented producer, is only now truly getting his first spin in the international spotlight, and learning first-hand that it’s never fun to hear what’s going on in your organization from an outsider. 

Unsaid at the town hall, but generally recognized at the network, is the fact that Licht’s more lowkey management style has been effective, and his lack of overt, get-me-the-control-room temperament has allowed some of his biggest stars to find their way back to the middle without need for his heavy hand. Overall, CNN’s temperature has unequivocally dropped a number of degrees during his six weeks on the job, and small signs of his recalibration are evident in the tone of panels on election night and the change in tone in Brian Stelter’s newsletter, to cite just a few examples. The next task is ensuring that Licht can monetize the vibe shift, especially as we effectively enter the 2024 cycle this fall.

The Kahn Era Begins

The Times transition is exactly the opposite of CNN, and a stark contrast to the last time the baton was passed from Jill Abramson to Dean Baquet—or rather, forced from her hands into his. What’s most notable about the Baquet-Kahn transfer is how seamless it’s been, which likely has to do with two factors. First, Kahn is a Times veteran and a well-known quantity who was omnipresent in editorial meetings, so no one was surprised he got the job. Indeed, the move was telegraphed for months, as I reported last year, especially after the James Bennet scandal. 

Second, Baquet stuck around for a long time to ensure that Kahn knew the ropes. If there is anything notable about this transition it’s how un-notable it’s been, which is rare in the media these days, as anyone observing CNN and Disney well knows. A.G. Sulzberger watched as his father made a series of uncomfortable and often reverberating changes at the executive level—Janet Robinson, the aforementioned Abramson situation, the Howell Raines fiasco, the Andy Rosenthal transition—and he nailed it on his first try.

But Kahn faces a challenge in terms of how he positions the Times to cover the 2024 presidential race. I noted this week that the Times Company is one of several major American news organizations—the most notable being CNN, of course—that is trying to tack back toward the center after the tumultuous years of the Trump era. In his Vanity Fair interview this week, Kahn repeatedly stressed that the Times was “an independent news organization… not a partisan fighter.” I believe that is sincerely what he wants the Times to be, but it’s transparently not the position of younger factions at the paper, and I have to imagine that stance will become a harder position to uphold in a Biden vs. Trump or Biden vs. DeSantis general election. We’ll see.

The only operation more political than the White House, of course, is the Times newsroom, where so many are predisposed to think about management cycles in the future. Kahn is supported by two massively talented managing editors, Marc Lacey and Carolyn Ryan, who are both in their mid-late 50s, and will presumably be in their early 60s when Kahn, who is 57, steps down by the obligatory threshold of age 65. Lacey and Ryan are great friends and huge talents, and given the back-of-the-envelope arithmetic, only one will likely be executive editor of the Times one day. So begins another long journey to the top of journalism’s most coveted greasy pole.