Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav appears to be channeling Bob Iger

Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav

CNBC

Hollywood is getting a jolt of emotional intelligence.

David Zaslav, longtime CEO of Discovery, is now the official CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery – the culmination of a merger announced in May last year. The newly merged company began trading on the Nasdaq on Monday using its new ticker, WBD. The stock was slightly changed to $ 24.45 in late Monday morning trading.

Zaslav is not new to the media scene. He has run Discovery Communications as CEO since 2006. Prior to that, he ran NBCUniversal’s cable and domestic television unit. (Disclosure: Zaslav helped found CNBC.) Over the years, he has made headlines for his large compensation.

But he has never been a Hollywood director. Most of Discovery’s programming is reality TV or nature-focused, such as its “Shark Week” slate. Zaslav has spent most of the last year on an all-consuming “listening tour” in Hollywood, preparing to run a company that includes Warner Bros. the studio and HBO, respectively, Batman and “Game of Thrones” home.

While his lack of experience may worry some investors, his unique combination of experience in veteran media director and novice in Hollywood executive roles may be the perfect recipe at the moment, said Lloyd Blankfein, former Goldman Sachs CEO who has known Zaslav for more than a decade. . Blankfein worked directly with Zaslav when Discovery hired Goldman to fund the merger with Scripps in 2017.

“It may be the right time for a new man because the industry is changing so fast,” Blankfein said. “In most contexts, experience is a great virtue. In a rapidly evolving industry, too much experience can be a commitment. David is a pretty unique combination – an old media type that is also a fresh face.”

Zaslav was not available to comment on this story.

Personality rather than experience

Zaslav has a chance to step into a role that has previously been occupied by people like former HBO boss Richard Plepler and former Disney boss Bob Iger: the sociable top executive with a high EQ who can connect to Hollywood talent as a human being just as much as a businessman.

Zaslav’s naturally inquisitive and modest personality should suit Hollywood well, even though it may be a cold place for outsiders, said Tom Freston, the former Viacom CEO who has been friends with Zaslav for more than two decades.

“He does not have the creative chops from Iger and Plepler, but what he does have is a very high EQ,” Freston said. “He does not come in as an omniscient guy. He has tremendous interpersonal skills.”

The timing of Zaslav’s ascension could not be better for nurturing Hollywood talent. While Netflix executives Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos are veterans, Disney, Amazon, NBCUniversal and Paramount Global have all undergone leadership changes at the top in recent years. Unlike Iger, Disney CEO Bob Chapek is not known for his human skills. Outgoing WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar has admitted he did not do a good job of communicating his decision to move all of his company’s 2021 films to HBO Max the same day they hit theaters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, Zaslav needs to be mindful of allowing executives already at WarnerMedia to control their divisions, Freston said. While Zaslav may want to have lunches with any Hollywood creator in Los Angeles (Zaslav moved to LA specifically to infuse himself with the entertainment community), he will have to make sure he does not inadvertently alienate Casey Bloys, HBO and HBO Max ‘ main content officer, and Toby Emmerich, who runs the film studio Warner Bros.

“My advice to him has been, meet as many people as you can, but you do not want to deprive Toby and Casey and the others who report to him,” Freston said. “Agents are going to be over him. He’s going to have to figure out a way to put up a barrier where he does not seem to be shutting everyone off, but he’s also giving his people the power to make decisions. instead of exceeding them. “

Zaslav also risks getting stuck in Hollywood details rather than focusing on running his business, which has some significant structural issues. The new Warner Bros. Discovery will have $ 55 billion in debt, and that is likely to result in future job losses that could hurt corporate morale. WarnerMedia has already absorbed several rounds of job losses and executive shake-ups that have negatively impacted the culture. One of Zaslav’s major tasks will be to recreate a creative culture for a division that has been run by a telephone company since 2018.

David Zaslav

Anjali Sundaram | CNBC

Zaslav must also convince Wall Street that his company’s streaming strategy can compete with Netflix and Disney + on a global stage. He has not defined what that strategy is yet, and he will have to balance it with an old cable networking company that is slowly dying but still making billions of dollars every year.

“Iger did it successfully with Disney,” said former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, a longtime friend of Zaslav. “David wants to be front and center in Hollywood for the next few months or maybe the first year. This is a new administration and he’s the head of that administration. Then I could imagine he would take a step back because he has a lot of things to do and this business has a lot of things to fix. “

‘A full pizza in a box’

Zaslav is known as a link between great personalities.

One of the first things friends tell about him is his ability to connect closely with people, even when they are surrounded by others. For years, Zaslav held large parties for hundreds of people at his home in the Hamptons on Long Island, New York. He would go out of his way to invite people from finance, technology, media and other industries to mingle and network – and listen to famous musicians like Diana Ross, Rod Stewart and Earth, Wind & Fire, whom he would hire to perform in his house.

“He gets food carts outside. One year I went home with a full pizza in a box,” Freston said. “He’s a modest guy, but holding a party like them was a generous act on his part, which perhaps signaled his ambitions.”

He also makes a great effort to send exceptionally high quality Discovery-themed swag to all kinds of people in the media and entertainment industry every year. Friends say they are often surprised to receive fleece vests, Bombas socks, popcorn makers and other lavish stuffed animals by mail each year in Discovery gift baskets for holidays and special events.

“He’s the male Jackie O.,” Carter said, referring to the late First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

“He’s one of the most popular people I’ve ever met in my life. He probably wished there was a fourth meal of the day so he could meet even more people,” Carter added. “He’s like one of the guys who started Hollywood. He’s fine out there.”

In addition to Hollywood, Zaslav will have to gain the trust of his own people. A former WarnerMedia director said the biggest thing Zaslav can do is cheerlead. Letting Warner employees, including top executives, know that their work is valued and understood can be even more important than adding their own insights.

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