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David Zaslav — the always-working, fleece-wearing chief executive officer of Discovery — is expected to run the new media conglomerate he’s forming with AT&T with a little help from his friends.
And that could lead to some of the top media executives who failed to thrive under telecom giant AT&T returning to the fold, including CNN chief Jeff Zucker and ex-HBO chief David Plepler, sources said.
Zucker, chairman of WarnerMedia News and sports and president of CNN worldwide, announced earlier this year that he would be stepping down at the end of 2021 amid reports that he had been clashing with Jason Kilar, hired last year by AT&T to run WarnerMedia.
Now, with AT&T bidding farewell to WarnerMedia by merging it with Discovery, insiders say they expect Zucker to stay and Kilar to leave.
On Monday AT&T and Discovery said they plan to combine their media units in a move that will join WarnerMedia networks like CNN, HBO, and Hollywood studio Warner Bros. with Discovery channels such as the Food Network, TLC and Animal Planet. The deal will close in 2022, forming a new media giant to be run by Zaslav.
Zaslav had met over the past few months with AT&T CEO John Stankey to pull the $43 billion deal together, which included clandestine meetings at Zaslav’s Greenwich Village brownstone, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Although there have not been any “formal talks” about leadership positions, one source said Zaslav will likely have his longtime golfing buddy Zucker oversee an expanded news and sports portfolio. Zucker did not respond to requests for comment.
Kilar was kept in the dark about the Discovery deal until recently, sources said. According to reports, the exec has hired a legal team to negotiate his exit package.
WarnerMedia declined to comment on Kilar’s behalf. Discovery also declined to comment.
Kilar, a former Amazon and Hulu exec, was hired by AT&T only 12 months ago. He quickly led a massive restructuring of WarnerMedia that sent well-respected division executives packing, including chairman Bob Greenblatt and chief content officer Kevin Reilly.
Kilar also shattered the theatrical window by sending newly released Warner Bros. movies like “Tom & Jerry” directly to streaming service HBO Max a month after they premiered in movie theaters.
Although the move was meant to boost pandemic sales, it rankled Hollywood. And top brass has grown weary of HBO Max’s slow subscriber growth, sources said. In the most recent quarter, HBO Max and HBO notched 41 million domestic subscribers, a mere 8 million subscribers gain from a year earlier.
While many credit Kilar with making meaningful changes at the company, those two issues helped seal his fate, sources said.
Other media confidants insiders see Zaslov tapping to help run the new business include Plepler, the ex-HBO chief who was pushed out by AT&T in 2019, and Oprah Winfrey, who launched the Oprah Winfrey Network with Discovery.
Plepler, the former chairman and CEO of HBO who hangs out with Zaslav in the Hamptons, could be asked to return to run the movie studio of the conglomerate, sources said.
Plepler left HBO in early 2019, shortly after AT&T closed its deal to buy Time Warner for $85 billion. The sudden departure of the entertainment executives responsible for iconic like “Game of Thrones,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Sex and the City” sent shock waves through the industry.
Of course, Plepler may not be available. In 2020 he inked a five-year deal with Apple to develop and produce original series, feature films and documentaries for its streaming service Apple TV+ through his new venture, Eden Productions. It’s not clear, however, what content Eden has produced for Apple.
One inside source said Winfrey is also expected to “be part of the mix” and will likely have a bigger platform at the newly combined company.
A longtime Zaslav collaborator, Winfrey inked a joint-venture with Discovery to form Oprah Winfrey Network or OWN in 2008, resulting in shows like “Oprah Winfrey’s Master Class” and “Super Soul Sunday.”
As part of the WarnerMedia-Discovery deal, Discovery shareholders will own 29 percent of the new company. In December, Winfrey took a $36 million stake in Discovery, amounting to less than 1 percent, as part of a new deal that would allow her to swap most of her interest in OWN.
A Discovery rep did not comment, but noted that the new company has yet to name its board members. Reps for Oprah did not comment.
During a press briefing Monday morning Zaslav and AT&T’s Stankey were peppered with questions about the company’s leadership going forward.
“David’s got decisions he’s gotta make across a broad cross-section of how he wants to organize the business and who will be in what roles moving forward in this transition period,” Stankey said.
At the time WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey, who now is the CEO of AT&T, was trying to make way for HBO Max, the company’s new streaming service.
Plepler declined to comment.
An insider with knowledge of Zaslav’s thinking said the exec is looking to invest in content and storytelling. Although Zaslav and Stankey said the deal will garner $3 billion in synergies, the insider said savings won’t come in the form of content investment. This year alone, when combined Discovery and WarnerMedia spent a whopping $20 billion in content.
“At the end of the day, content is king,” said another source, before turning to AT&T’s decision to shed its media assets.
“AT&T needed to invest so much into developing 5G technology,” the source said. “They need to focus on that. They don’t want to deal with stock fluctuations based on a bad movie review or a scandal at CNN. Everything in magnified when you own media.”
One Zaslav pal who insiders hope isn’t resurrected is Andy Lack, the longtime NBC News chairman who left the network in 2020 after Ronan Farrow’s book “Catch and Kill” accused him and his right-hand man Noah Oppenheim of killing his Harvey Weinstein reporting. Lack could not be reached for comment.
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