Talk to people at Warner Bros. or HBO these days and invariably they’ll ask: So… what are you hearing from Discovery? And vice versa: What’s the buzz at Warners? There’s a reason for that, of course. As AT&T’s $43 billion punt of WarnerMedia to Discovery sails toward a possible closing date in mid-2022, everyone—top to bottom, but especially at the top—is looking for an angle.
It’s easy to see why. A merger of two complementary media behemoths under Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav will necessarily produce winners and losers, elevated leaders and discarded also-rans, new priorities and tossed-off strategies. Thanks to regulatory rules, the two sides aren’t allowed to discuss non-public details of their respective businesses with each other. The result—like in many combinations of this scope, but exacerbated because these are all Hollywood people—has been a prolonged game of bicoastal Telephone where even the top executives in New York, Silver Spring, and Burbank are communicating through conduits, talking to everyone about their future colleagues. Everyone, bizarrely, except each other.
It’s not that Zaslav hasn’t been feeling out the WarnerMedia people. He’s actually done multiple sit-downs with outgoing C.E.O. Jason Kilar’s direct reports, including news and sports leader (and old Zaz pal) Jeff Zucker and studios and networks boss Ann Sarnoff; and, over the past few weeks, her direct reports, including HBO’s Casey Bloys, Warners film chief Toby Emmerich and TV leader Channing Dungey. Zaslav sat next to Sarnoff at the big Succession premiere last month in New York—an event, incidentally, that AT&T C.E.O. John Stankey was slated to attend but pulled out of at the last minute. For Stankey, the end of his disastrous media foray can’t come soon enough (though AT&T shareholders will still own shares of the new entity).