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David Zaslav, the next CEO of the soon-to-be merged WarnerMedia and Discovery, is going to have his work cut out for him, according to industry insiders who question whether the exec is too old school to run a Hollywood-centric media company that’s trying to catch the likes of Netflix and Disney.
The 61-year-old, who will helm a combined company that is home to movie studio Warner Bros., HBO, creator of shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Succession,” CNN and a number of channels like TLC, HGTV and Animal Planet, is said to take a more conservative approach to hiring that some say feels “dated.”
Critics griped that Zaslav tends to stick to a small, close-knit group of media types with whom he golfs in the Hamptons or shares a common work history. Meanwhile, Zaslav allies dubbed the exec a “pragmatic” and “shrewd” operator, who surrounds himself with trusted lieutenants who get the job done.
“Hiring leaders for the new company is the single most important thing David is going to do. He needs to diversify who he surrounds himself with,” said a source pointing to rumors of potential hires.
When news of the merger broke this week, media watchers buzzed that the CEO would likely consider bringing in golfing buddies, Jeff Zucker and Richard Plepler to help lead the new company. 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 his boss Jason Kilar, who will be leaving the company before the merger is complete.
While retaining Zucker, a successful exec, is perhaps a no brainer, bringing back old hands like Plepler, the 61-year-old exec who ran HBO and Lack, a 73-year-old former NBC News boss, who left amid allegations by Ronan Farrow that he killed his reporting on Harvey Weinstein, struck some as less-than-progressive.
Recruiting talent from “your golf club” is like “going back to 1930’s Hollywood,” joked a source, who hoped that Zaslav was considering other candidates.
Another source called the hypothetical hiring, a “cheap shot,” and explained that Zaslav will pick the best person for the job, and “in the case of CNN, that’s Zucker.” The insider added that both Plepler and Lack know how to do their jobs well.
Having experienced people will be paramount for Zaslav, who isn’t accustomed to running a big-budget Hollywood studio where a movie flop can tank the company’s stock. Discovery, which is perhaps best known for reality-centric TV like “90 Day Fiancé” and Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” operates on leaner budgets with faster production turnarounds.
A source said Plepler’s name has been floated because he fits Zaslav’s hiring pattern, of bringing inexperienced, known execs, who will be able to run their own division without excessive oversight.
One need look no further than Zaslav’s own C-suite as an example, which echoes his own experience at NBCUniversal where he ran the company’s cable and domestic TV division. The CEO’s top three lieutenants, Jean-Brac Perette, the president and CEO of Discovery International, Bruce Campbell, chief development, distribution and legal officer, and Adria Alpert Romm, chief people and culture officer, all have the NBCUniversal stamp of approval having worked there for decades, each.
While the trio has supported Zaslav so, too, have advisers like billionaire Liberty Media chairman John Malone, who sits on Discovery’s board, Liontree CEO Aryeh Buorkoff, who worked on the Discovery-WarnerMedia marriage, and the Newhouse family. The Newhouses, through their company, Advance, own a minority stake in Discovery. Now, they have two board seats on the new company occupied by Advance CEO Steven Miron and Co-President Steven Newhouse, according to a recent SEC filing.
Although the board hasn’t been fully completed, sources complained that the new media company is already taking cues from Discovery’s stodgy board, which includes Miron and nine other white men, as well as a white woman and one black man, Robert Johnson, the BET founder, who was added last year.
Oprah Winfrey’s name has been bandied about as a great candidate for the board, seeing as how the media mogul launched her cable network Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) with Discovery and recently acquired a small stake in the Zaslav-led firm, but that may turn out to be wishful thinking.
Either way, it will be important for Zaslav to create a leadership team that reflects the audience he serves and today’s culture.
“To be competitive right now and to hire good people and have a good culture, you’re going to need to have diversity, much more diversity than he’s had in the past,” a source said. “David is about results but he’s not going to fall into the trap that I need the rainbow coalition of senior executives…but I think he’s going to be sensitive to it as any CEO will be. He knows that to be a big competitive company today, you can’t be run by just white guys.”
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