David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery Communications
Hollywood is about to experience a surge in emotional intelligence.
David Zaslav, longtime CEO of Discovery, has officially become the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery is the culmination of a merger that was announced last May. The newly merged company began trading on the Nasdaq on Monday under the new ticker WBD. The stock changed slightly and hit $24.45 late Monday morning.
Zaslav is not new to the media scene. He has led Discovery Communications as CEO since 2006. Prior to that, he ran the cable and national television division of NBCUniversal. (Disclosure: Zaslav helped found CNBC.) He has made headlines over the years for his massive compensation.
But he was never a Hollywood executive. Much of Discovery’s programming is reality or nature based, such as its Shark Week program. Zaslav has spent much of the past year in an all-consuming Hollywood audition, preparing to lead a company that includes Warner Bros. Studios. and HBO, Homes of Batman and Game of Thrones, respectively.
While his lack of experience may be a concern for some investors, his unique combination of experience as a veteran media CEO and newcomer to Hollywood could be the perfect recipe for the times, said Lloyd Blankfein, a former Goldman Sachs CEO who has known Zaslav for over a hundred years. decade. . Blankfein worked directly with Zaslav when Goldman was hired by Discovery to fund a merger with Scripps in 2017.
“Perhaps now is a good time for a new person, because the industry is developing very quickly,” Blankfein said. “Most of the time, experience is a big asset. In a rapidly evolving industry, having too much experience can be a hindrance. David is a rather unique combination: an old media guy who is also a new face. »
Zaslav could not comment on this story.
Personality is more important than experience
Zaslav gets a chance to play a role previously played by the likes of former HBO head Richard Plepler and former Disney CEO Bob Iger: an outgoing, high-EQ CEO who can connect with Hollywood talent both as an individual and as a businessman. .
Zaslav’s naturally curious and unfussy character should be well suited to Hollywood, even if it can be a chilly place for outsiders, said Tom Freston, a former Viacom CEO who has been friends with Zaslav for more than two decades.
“He doesn’t have the creativity of Aiger and Plepler, but he does have a really high EQ,” Freston said. “He’s not going to come across as a know-it-all. He has amazing interpersonal skills. »
The time of Zaslav’s ascent is the best suited for the education of Hollywood talents. While Netflix executives Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos are veterans, there have been leadership changes at Disney, Amazon, NBCUniversal and Paramount Global in recent years. Unlike Iger, Disney CEO Bob Chapek isn’t known for his people skills. Outgoing WarnerMedia CEO Jason Keelar admitted he didn’t do a great job announcing his decision to move all of his company’s 2021 films to HBO Max the same day they hit theaters during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, Zaslav should be mindful of letting the executives who already work at WarnerMedia control their divisions, Freston said. While Zaslav might want to dine with all the Hollywood creatives in LA (Zaslav moved to LA specifically to indulge in the entertainment community), he needs to make sure he doesn’t unintentionally alienate Casey. HBO and HBO Max, as well as Toby Emmerich, director of Warner Bros.
“My advice to him was to meet with as many people as possible, but you don’t want to deprive Toby, Casey and others who report to him,” Freston said. “Agents will surround him. He will have to find a way to put up a barrier where he doesn’t seem to shut everyone out, but also allows his people to make decisions rather than step over them. ”
Zaslav also risks getting bogged down in the minutiae of Hollywood instead of focusing on running his business, which has serious structural problems. New Warner Bros. Discovery will be $55 billion in debt and this will likely lead to future job cuts, which could hurt company morale. WarnerMedia has already experienced several rounds of layoffs and personnel changes that have negatively affected the corporate culture. One of Zaslav’s big challenges will be to recreate a creative culture for the phone company division, which has been in operation since 2018.
Anjali Sundaram | CNBC
Zaslav also needs to convince Wall Street that his company’s streaming strategy can compete with Netflix and Disney+ on the global stage. He hasn’t figured out what that strategy is yet, and he’ll have to balance it with his legacy cable network business, which is slowly dying but still brings in billions of dollars each year.
“Iger did a great job with Disney,” said former Vanity Fair editor Greydon Carter, a longtime friend of Zaslav. “David will want to be at the center of Hollywood for a few months or maybe the first year. This is a new administration, and he is the head of this administration. Then I think he will back off because he has a lot to do and this company has a lot to do. »
“Full pizza in a box”
Zaslav is known as a connecting link of great personalities.
One of the first things his friends say about him is his ability to get close to people even when they are around other people. For years, Zaslav has hosted huge parties for hundreds of people at his home in the Hamptons on Long Island, New York. He went out of his way to invite people from the financial, technology, media, and other industries to network and network, as well as listen to famous musicians such as Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, and Earth, Wind & Fire, whom he hired to play at home. .
“He will take food trucks out into the street. One day I came home with a whole pizza in a box,” Freston said. “He is a modest guy, but throwing a party like this was a generous act on his part, which, perhaps, testified to his ambitions. »
He also makes it a point to send out exceptionally high-quality Discovery-themed promotional materials every year to a wide variety of people in the media and entertainment industry. Friends say they are often surprised when they receive fleece vests, Bombas socks, popcorn machines and other stuffed toys in the mail every year in Discovery holiday and special event gift baskets.
“This is the Jackie O man,” Carter said, referring to the late First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“He is one of the most popular people I have met in my life. He probably wishes 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 founded Hollywood. He is comfortable there. »
In addition to Hollywood, Zaslav will have to earn the trust of his family. A former WarnerMedia executive said that the best thing Zaslav could do was cheerleading. Letting Warner employees, including senior executives, know that their work is appreciated and understood can be even more important than sharing your own opinion.
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