Zaz, Licht & The Media Hot Seat

Before David Zaslav took over WBD, his friend Brian Roberts, C.E.O. of Comcast, warned him that the news division would suck up far more oxygen than its business might suggest. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
June 9, 2023

The Warner Bros. Discovery share price popped a bit this week, did you notice? Don’t get too excited. WBD is hardly catching up to Netflix, which has shot up from less than $300 to more than $400 per share this year. But for a company whose stock started the year at $9.50 per share, way down from the $24 and change where it was trading in April 2022, when David Zaslav took over as C.E.O. of the spun-off and combined company, a little 7 percent uptick today, to $14, isn’t nothing.  

You might suspect that the market was reacting favorably to Zaslav finally euthanizing Chris Licht, his hand-picked steward of the newly apolitical and a-popular CNN. Licht’s slow-then-all-at-once implosion after 13 months, and one historically damaging magazine profile (see below), have been the talk of New York and L.A. And I get it, it’s kinda the perfect story, combining media, politics, business, celebrity, money, hubris, schadenfreude, 6 a.m. workout sessions, and Donald Trump. Pretty irresistible, and my Puck colleague Dylan Byers has owned the Licht beat, so add his private email In the Room to your media mix if you haven’t already.

Yet… despite the comical amount of media coverage devoted to the CNN meltdown, the unit represents only about 5 percent of WBD’s overall business. And the average viewership of these CNN shows is minuscule, about 473,000 viewers in primetime in March, per Nielsen. Cable news in general isn’t much better. In fact, the stock actually popped this week because WBD said in a decidedly less sexy regulatory filing that the company had repaid about $1.5 billion in debt on two loans. Per CNBC, WBD now plans a $500 million offer to purchase floating rate notes, the slice of its massive remaining $45 billion-or-so debt that carries a high interest rate.