With Warner Bros. Discovery Merger, David Zaslav Is Angling to Become America’s King of Content

David Zaslav’s face lit up because the SUV approached the lot. It was round 8 a.m. on Tuesday, June 1, 70-something levels and sunny in Burbank, California, the place Zaslav was arriving for his first-ever go to to one of many world’s most storied leisure studios. After Zaslav flashed his destructive COVID outcomes for the safety guards, the automobile rolled onto the 110-acre property, an ersatz metropolis within the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains. Zaslav gazed out the window and seemed up on the iconic Warner Bros. water tower, looming over him like some historic shrine. If actuality hadn’t already sunk in, it was sinking in now. “Are you able to imagine this?” he gushed. “It’s actually taking place.”

Two weeks earlier, Zaslav, the president and CEO of Discovery since 2007, had pulled off the slickest coup within the present period of megamergers—a $43 billion deal hashed out in spy-like secrecy over three months from February to Could. The transaction, now inching via the regulatory gauntlet and anticipated to shut round mid-2022, will relieve AT&T of its debt-ridden WarnerMedia portfolio, which the telecom large had acquired simply three years earlier at almost double the worth. Discovery, in flip, will amass a strong new arsenal within the streaming wars, uniting the likes of OWN, Animal Planet, the Meals Community, and HGTV with the extra formidable armies of HBO, CNN, the previous Turner Broadcasting networks, and the Warner Bros. library. As soon as the deal closes, the mixed firm’s revenues can be second solely to Disney, and Zaslav, a wildly profitable however nonetheless comparatively second-tier media government, will discover himself at a desk with the reigning kings of content material. As a New York Instances headline declared after the deal was introduced on Could 17: “A Titan Ascends in Media World’s Recreation of Thrones.”

Zaslav had flown into Burbank to introduce himself to WarnerMedia’s 27,000 staff. The overwhelming majority of them could be tuning in through videoconference, however 100 of Warner’s high executives have been there within the flesh, their first time again because the begin of the pandemic. Zaslav had introduced alongside Discovery’s chief company working officer, David Leavy, and the corporate’s H.R. boss, Adria Alpert Romm. Their driver deposited them at George Clooney’s former bungalow so Zaslav may put together. The earlier night, throughout the aircraft journey, Zaslav had mirrored on his historical past. Similar to the real-life Warner brothers, he was a descendent of Polish Jews, whose grandparents fled Europe within the years earlier than the Holocaust, when the Warners have been urgently lobbying U.S. lawmakers to cease Hitler’s rise to energy. In one other deeply private connection, one in all Zaslav’s heroes is Steve Ross, the legendary former CEO of Warner Communications and Time Warner. In 2012, Zaslav acquired an award in Ross’s title from the UJA-Federation of New York. Now he was taking on Ross’s former firm, about to provide a presentation within the Steven J. Ross Theater. He walked onstage with Jason Kilar, the present CEO of WarnerMedia, who had been saved in the dead of night concerning the merger till proper earlier than the information broke. Zaslav isn’t the kind of man who takes notes, however at this time he was clutching a manila folder filled with them. He needed to get this proper.

There had been an identical city corridor in June 2018, when John Stankey, the veteran AT&T government who’d initially been appointed to run WarnerMedia, appeared alongside Richard Plepler, the long-running chief of HBO. It didn’t go over effectively. Stankey despatched a collective cringe via WarnerMedia’s artistic neighborhood, rattling off jargon like “hours of engagement” and “monetize via alternate fashions of promoting.” A video of the dialog was leaked to the Instances, and eight months later, Plepler left the corporate. (Stankey is now AT&T’s CEO.)

Zaslav made a a lot better first impression. He talked about his origins and his household. He talked about expertise and storytelling. He talked about heritage and creativity. Generally, new bosses are available performing like they know every little thing. Zaslav’s message was the other. “We’re not coming in right here considering that we all know the solutions,” he mentioned. “There’s a ton we don’t know.” Within the phrases of a rank-and-file worker who was watching from house: “He nailed it.”

Towards the tip of the presentation, Zaslav revealed the brand new firm’s title, Warner Bros. Discovery, and its slogan: “the stuff that goals are made from.” “It’s from The Maltese Falcon, which is a Warner Bros. film,” he mentioned. “It’s one in all my favourite motion pictures, and that line comes on the very finish of the film, when a police officer comes, and the Maltese falcon is sitting there and the police officer asks Humphrey Bogart, ‘What’s that?’ And he says, ‘It’s the stuff that goals are made from.’ And to me, this journey that we’re all on collectively, to inform the very best tales, to have our content material seen all over the place on the earth, the joy of it, to get the very best storytellers to be in enterprise with us and to be delighted and enthusiastic about telling their tales and sharing them, that could be a dream.”

After the city corridor, an out of doors reception, and conferences with varied executives, Zaslav hopped aboard an open-air van for a tour of the lot. When the van slowed to a halt in entrance of the fountain from Mates, Zaslav jumped off for an image and texted it to his spouse and children. Contained in the Warner Bros. museum, he strolled via Batman’s bat cave and Harry Potter’s wizarding world earlier than stopping to pose with Surprise Lady’s lasso. Then he hit the reward store and acquired a bunch of hats, espresso mugs, and tote baggage. (Zaslav’s swag stash is the stuff of legend.) Later, aboard a personal jet again to New York, Zaslav and his lieutenants reclined of their seats and scoured the information protection whereas an attendant poured some Chardonnay. Zaslav was nonetheless pinching himself. “How fortunate are we that we get to do that, that that is our job?” he mentioned. “I actually do imagine that is going to be the very best media firm on the earth.” They raised their glasses and took a drink.

A month and a half later, Zaslav was zipping round Central Park in his signature sporty workwear: white Golf TV short-sleeve shirt, Eurosport cap, matching grey vest, and khakis. The ensemble was accomplished by a pair of tortoiseshell Ray Bans framing Zaslav’s square-jawed face. He normally walks the park at 5 a.m., however at this time he’d pushed it again to 7 for my profit.

When Zaslav is in Manhattan, he shacks up within the Central Park West duplex that he purchased from Conan O’Brien for $25 million in 2010. Through the pandemic’s prevaccination part, he laid low in his oceanfront East Hampton property. However now he splits his time between the Hamptons, the town, and, more and more, Beverly Hills, the place Zaslav and his spouse, Pam, are renovating the historic “Woodland” mansion as soon as owned by The Godfather producer Robert Evans. The evening of our meetup, he was internet hosting a celebration at Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar to have a good time the launch of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Community on Discovery+, the corporate’s budding streaming service. However the day was younger, and Zaslav likes to be on the transfer, so we walked—emphasis on walked, versus, say, strolled—within the quickly rising warmth for greater than an hour earlier than settling into an out of doors desk at Barney Greengrass, the 113-year-old Higher West Facet deli and go-to smoked fish joint for New York’s media elite. (Different high-profile regulars embody Zaslav’s good associates David Geffen and Allen Grubman.) Zaslav ordered a plate of scrambled eggs with lox and launched me to the institution’s third-generation proprietor, Gary Greengrass.

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