Entertainment

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

David Zaslav’s face lit up as the SUV approached the lot. It was around 8 a.m. on Tuesday, June 1, 70-something degrees and sunny in Burbank, California, where Zaslav was arriving for his first-ever visit to one of the world’s most storied entertainment studios. After Zaslav flashed his negative COVID results for the security guards, the car rolled onto the 110-acre property, an ersatz metropolis in the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains. Zaslav gazed out the window and looked up at the iconic Warner Bros. water tower, looming over him like some ancient shrine. If reality hadn’t already sunk in, it was sinking in now. “Can you believe this?” he gushed. “It’s really happening.”

Two weeks earlier, Zaslav, the president and CEO of Discovery since 2007, had pulled off the slickest coup in the current era of megamergers—a $43 billion deal hashed out in spy-like secrecy over three months from February to May. The transaction, now inching through the regulatory gauntlet and expected to close around mid-2022, will relieve AT&T of its debt-ridden WarnerMedia portfolio, which the telecom giant had acquired just three years earlier at nearly double the price. Discovery, in turn, will amass a powerful new arsenal in the streaming wars, uniting the likes of OWN, Animal Planet, the Food Network, and HGTV with the more formidable armies of HBO, CNN, the former Turner Broadcasting networks, and the Warner Bros. library. Once the deal closes, the combined company’s revenues will be second only to Disney, and Zaslav, a wildly successful but still relatively second-tier media executive, will find himself at a table with the reigning kings of content. As a New York Times headline declared after the deal was announced on May 17: “A Titan Ascends in Media World’s Game of Thrones.”

Zaslav had flown into Burbank to introduce himself to WarnerMedia’s 27,000 employees. The vast majority of them would be tuning in via videoconference, but a hundred of Warner’s top executives were there in the flesh, their first time back since the start of the pandemic. Zaslav had brought along Discovery’s chief corporate operating officer, David Leavy, and the company’s H.R. boss, Adria Alpert Romm. Their driver deposited them at George Clooney’s former bungalow so Zaslav could prepare. The previous evening, during the plane ride, Zaslav had reflected on his history. Just like the real-life Warner brothers, he was a descendent of Polish Jews, whose grandparents fled Europe in the years before the Holocaust, when the Warners were urgently lobbying U.S. lawmakers to stop Hitler’s rise to power. In another deeply personal connection, one of Zaslav’s heroes is Steve Ross, the legendary former CEO of Warner Communications and Time Warner. In 2012, Zaslav received an award in Ross’s name from the UJA-Federation of New York. Now he was taking over Ross’s former company, about to give a presentation in the Steven J. Ross Theater. He walked onstage with Jason Kilar, the current CEO of WarnerMedia, who had been kept in the dark about the merger until right before the news broke. Zaslav isn’t the type of guy who takes notes, but today he was clutching a manila folder full of them. He wanted to get this right.

There had been a similar town hall in June 2018, when John Stankey, the veteran AT&T executive who’d originally been appointed to run WarnerMedia, appeared alongside Richard Plepler, the long-running leader of HBO. It didn’t go over well. Stankey sent a collective cringe through WarnerMedia’s creative community, rattling off jargon like “hours of engagement” and “monetize through alternate models of advertising.” A video of the conversation was leaked to the Times, and eight months later, Plepler left the company. (Stankey is now AT&T’s CEO.)

Zaslav made a much better first impression. He talked about his origins and his family. He talked about talent and storytelling. He talked about heritage and creativity. Sometimes, new bosses come in acting like they know everything. Zaslav’s message was the opposite. “We are not coming in here thinking that we know the answers,” he said. “There is a ton we don’t know.” In the words of a rank-and-file employee who was watching from home: “He nailed it.”

Toward the end of the presentation, Zaslav revealed the new company’s name, Warner Bros. Discovery, and its slogan: “the stuff that dreams are made of.” “It’s from The Maltese Falcon, which is a Warner Bros. movie,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite movies, and that line comes at the very end of the movie, when a police officer comes, and the Maltese falcon is sitting there and the police officer asks Humphrey Bogart, ‘What is that?’ And he says, ‘It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.’ And to me, this journey that we are all on together, to tell the best stories, to have our content seen everywhere in the world, the excitement of it, to get the best storytellers to be in business with us and to be delighted and excited about telling their stories and sharing them, that is a dream.”

After the town hall, an outdoor reception, and meetings with various executives, Zaslav hopped aboard an open-air van for a tour of the lot. When the van slowed to a halt in front of the fountain from Friends, Zaslav jumped off for a picture and texted it to his wife and kids. Inside the Warner Bros. museum, he strolled through Batman’s bat cave and Harry Potter’s wizarding world before stopping to pose with Wonder Woman’s lasso. Then he hit the gift shop and bought a bunch of hats, coffee mugs, and tote bags. (Zaslav’s swag stash is the stuff of legend.) Later, aboard a private jet back to New York, Zaslav and his lieutenants reclined in their seats and scoured the news coverage while an attendant poured some Chardonnay. Zaslav was still pinching himself. “How lucky are we that we get to do this, that this is our job?” he said. “I really do believe this is going to be the best media company in the world.” They raised their glasses and took a drink.

A month and a half later, Zaslav was zipping around Central Park in his signature sporty workwear: white Golf TV short-sleeve shirt, Eurosport cap, matching gray vest, and khakis. The ensemble was completed by a pair of tortoiseshell Ray Bans framing Zaslav’s square-jawed face. He usually walks the park at 5 a.m., but today he’d pushed it back to 7 for my benefit.

When Zaslav is in Manhattan, he shacks up in the Central Park West duplex that he bought from Conan O’Brien for $25 million in 2010. During the pandemic’s prevaccination phase, he laid low in his oceanfront East Hampton estate. But now he splits his time between the Hamptons, the city, and, increasingly, Beverly Hills, where Zaslav and his wife, Pam, are renovating the historic “Woodland” mansion once owned by The Godfather producer Robert Evans. The night of our meetup, he was hosting a party at Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar to celebrate the launch of Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Network on Discovery+, the company’s budding streaming service. But the day was young, and Zaslav likes to be on the move, so we walked—emphasis on walked, as opposed to, say, strolled—in the rapidly rising heat for more than an hour before settling into an outdoor table at Barney Greengrass, the 113-year-old Upper West Side deli and go-to smoked fish joint for New York’s media elite. (Other high-profile regulars include Zaslav’s good friends David Geffen and Allen Grubman.) Zaslav ordered a plate of scrambled eggs with lox and introduced me to the establishment’s third-generation proprietor, Gary Greengrass.

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