Discovery Chief David Zaslav Gets in Fighting Shape for WarnerMedia Takeover (Column)

Discovery Chief David Zaslav Gets in Fighting Shape for WarnerMedia Takeover (Column)

May 17, 2021

Discovery CEO David Zaslav is, by his own definition, is a “fighter.”

He’s poised to record quite a knockout if he pulls off a merger with AT&T’s WarnerMedia unit in a pact that will leave him as the ultimate keeper of the keys to HBO, HBO Max, Warner Bros., Turner channels and a growing global suite of direct to consumer streaming businesses.

News of Discovery’s pursuit of a union with the erstwhile Time Warner assets came on so fast that executives and recent alumni of HBO, Warner Bros. et al were dizzy with surprise as word spread Sunday morning. The notion that yet another new boss was about to enter the picture was stunning to many after nearly three years of turmoil since AT&T acquired TW in 2018. Zaslav’s roots in the cable business run deep but he is by no means a Hollywood studio guy, which makes him a scary commodity to some.

To many Zaslav is best known as one of the most highly compensated CEOs in modern history. Headlines of his nine-figure pay packages in 2014 ($156 million) and 2018 ($129 million) sparked outrage among consumer advocates, governance and executive compensation watchdog groups. In fairness, those comp numbers were inflated by stock options ($116 million of 2018’s package) that remain at risk depending on the company’s performance over the long haul. But Zaslav nevertheless is part of a stable of veteran cable and media executives in John Malone’s orbit who are handsomely compensated in success.

Zaslav has transformed (more than once) Discovery’s business and taken its market cap from $5 billion when he joined at the start of 2007 to $16.3 billion as of Friday. He’s invested in global expansion, including pushing into deep into the European sports market with the Euro Sport SVOD platform that spurred Discovery to make big-money bids for Olympic rights and PGA golf in the region.

As an individual, Liberty Media mogul Malone is a large shareholder in Discovery with control of about 30% of voting shares. No transaction gets done without his blessing, and Malone has been Zaslav’s biggest champion.

Zaslav came up the ranks at NBC during the go-go late 1980s and early 1990s when the pay-TV universe began to expand at a fast clip. He’s got a tough-talking demeanor — enhanced by a distinctive Brooklyn-meets-Boston accent — but he’s also affable and down to earth. He’s sartorial signature is a sweater vest, often emblazoned with a Discovery-related logo.

Sit with Zaslav for five minutes and there is no escaping his infectious enthusiasm for the content business and Discovery’s unique place in it. Zaslav is part of a generation of executives who are justifiably proud of having helped to shape the contours of the multi-channel universe during his early years as a communications lawyer and then a cable distribution executive at NBC. He helped launch CNBC, America’s Talking and MSNBC. After years in high-growth sectors – and after collecting some famously fat paychecks – Zaslav exudes endless ambition and a love of the game. He’s the kind of CEO who usually stops to talk to the media gaggle at Sun Valley during the Allen & Co. conference.

During his 15 years and counting at Discovery, Zaslav has earned a reputation for a quick trigger finger with management changes and strategies for the company’s bouquet of lifestyle and unscripted channels. Discovery at present has 19 domestic linear outlets and regional channels serving more than 200 territories around the world.

Rich Ross, Peter Liguori, Margaret Loesch and Marjorie Kaplan are among the executives who have moved through the Discovery universe in recent years. Discovery has made over underperforming channels (Planet Green, Velocity, Discovery Health, Military Channel, among others) with content joint ventures and top-to-bottom rebrands. Some have worked out well, like Oprah Winfrey’s OWN (after a few years of patience) and some have not, like the long-gone Discovery Times documentary project with the New York Times or the kid-focused Hub partnership with Hasbro.

Sources who have worked with Zaslav say he can be “unemotional” and “clinical” about making the business case for change, even when a pink slip comes out of nowhere for top executives. Discovery has also incurred the wrath of independent producers by squeezing them on production costs and demand cost-cutting moves at the expense of program quality. By all accounts, Zaslav and his business lieutenants run a tight ship.

In 2018 Discovery made a bet on getting bigger by scooping up Scripps Networks’ lifestyle channels, anchored by Food Network and HGTV, for nearly $14.6 billion. Zaslav’s challenge now is to make Discovery’s channel menu into a player in the direct to consumer streaming arena even though Discovery Plus, which bowed Jan. 1, does not have the scripted serialized programming that lends itself to binge watching in an on-demand format. Discovery has to convince viewers to watch HGTV’s design shows, TLC’s dating dramas and Food Network’s competition series in a whole new way.

Discovery came in to 2021 with a small head start in streaming through its existing services in Europe. Bringing Discovery’s lean-back lifestyle channels together in a cable bundle-like package with HBO, HBO Max, Warner Bros. movies and such could be an attractive for consumers. For global streamers, the name of the game seems to be serving up as much fresh content as possible to keep subscribers engaged.

If anybody knows how to experiment with the packaging and marketing of content, it’s Zaslav. It’s said that he has made a strong connection with AT&T CEO John Stankey, which has greased the wheels for a transaction that no one saw coming just a day ago.

If the deal comes to fruition, HBO, Warner Bros. and Turner insiders will have to brace for the get-it-done atmosphere of working with Zaslav on a new rehabilitation project. One source who knows Zaslav well called it the “Hurricane David” effect.

“Media right now is a street fight,” Zaslav told Variety in 2018. “I’m a fighter. I love it, and I love the business.”

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