With Warner Bros. Discovery Merger, David Zaslav wants to become the king of American content


The character next to Zaslav belies a social life that mere mortals can only dream of, as evidenced by the star-studded Labor Day parties he and Pam had thrown until 2018. McEnroe recalls receiving an invitation last minute dining with Zaslav and Chuck Schumer, as well as feeling like a fish out of water in intimate meetings with businessmen like Geffen and Barry Diller. “I think its greatest quality is bringing together an eclectic mix of people in an environment where they kind of let their guard down and have fun,” McEnroe said. Winfrey, who forged a strong bond with Zaslav through the launch of OWN, told me about the time they were finishing a meal when Zaslav suggested going down to SoHo House to meet Tom Freston and Bono for a drink. “Drinks led to early morning drinks,” Winfrey recalled. “David kept saying, I’ll get what he has, and I keep saying, I’ll get what they have.” (shots of tequila.) “The guy left up at the end of the night was Bono.”

As of July 2019, the Zaslavs were on Geffen’s yacht, sailing around the Mediterranean with a crew including Winfrey, King, Lloyd and Laura Jacobs Blankfein. One evening they decided to screen the award-winning BBC comedy Chip bag, which was made by a production company Discovery now owns but which Zaslav hadn’t had time to watch. A minute into the first episode, the group found themselves in the middle of a hot and heavy sex scene. Pause! “So I raised my hand,” Zaslav recalls. “I go, whoa! So they stop him. And I said, ‘Okay, here’s the strategy. Either turn it off or put it back on and everyone is looking forward to it. We don’t look at each other until it’s over. (They opted for the latter.)

A recurring theme in my conversations with those close to Zaslav was his steadfast generosity. The New Years Eve cancellation plans to spend the night in the hospital with a sick friend and a platter of Nobu sushi. I send you chicken soup, matzo, and freshly squeezed orange juice when you get back to bed with pneumonia. Fly a group of his oldest friends to Rome and organize a private tour of the Vatican to celebrate his 50th birthday. “Some of these people had never left the country,” said Krichmar, his childhood best friend. “When it comes to his friends, the people he’s been in contact with for so long, nothing else matters.”

When the world came to a screeching halt in March 2020, Zaslav found himself in one of the most difficult times of his career. To begin with, a number of his employees were ill, including three with whom he had recently been in a meeting. (Zaslav dodged the bullet.) No one was hospitalized, but some were sick enough to monitor oxygen levels and pray that they didn’t deteriorate. “During my years in the company,” Zaslav said on our walk, “we got kicked out of the country, we failed in a lot of things, we breathed, we got up. We had a lot of challenges. The hardest part was making the employees sick and talking to relatives or mothers. And it’s on my watch. They got sick coming to Discovery to work. On top of that, Zaslav, like many CEOs, had to figure out how to spin the wheels with everyone suddenly working from home. “On a normal day I go to the office, there are six people outside and we’re just browsing through stuff. And then I run down the hall and grab these six people: What do you think of this idea? None of this could go on. How do you run a business? “

To stay in touch with worker bees, Zaslav began making weekly videos to send to 10,000 Discovery employees around the world. Nothing fancy: Zaslav’s youngest, who was in quarantine in East Hampton with mum and dad, simply held up an iPhone and hit the record. In the first installment, Zaslav gave a tour of his home office, which consisted of a small office equipped with an iMac and a conference phone. The week four video featured a coffee table covered in classic board games and a copy of the “SUMO format” illustrated story of Taschen of the Rolling Stones (Zaslav’s favorite band). In another, shot in Zaslav’s kitchen, he gave everyone a taste of the comfort food he sent back: nonpareil, Pop Secret, Utz pretzels, and Reddi-wip. “I might be putting on some weight,” he said.

At the time of writing this article, plans to return to the office in the corporate world were shaken thanks to the booming delta variant. Discovery’s homecoming came with an added layer of complexity. In addition to ironing out plans for satellite offices in 34 countries, Zaslav was preparing to welcome all of his New York-based employees to the company’s brand new global headquarters. (With public health protocols and hybrid schedules required.) Discovery’s new home, across from BuzzFeed and steps from a Netflix office, is a 19th-century building in the Flatiron District with 14 floors of fully renovated loft-style space. This includes a test kitchen and street-level production studio, wellness center, exercise room, and a leafy rooftop terrace with a northwest view of Hudson Yards, where WarnerMedia has been headquartered since 2019. It is too early to say if any additional real estate transaction will be necessary once the transaction is completed, but in any case, Zaslav will have many other integration issues to work out. “If I were to say what is David’s biggest challenge beyond shutting down as quickly as possible,” said Greenfield, the LightShed analyst, “is that he has a team of executives at WarnerMedia who have had five heartbreaking years: layoffs, management changes, new bosses. We don’t even know who is coming and going as part of this new merger… There has been no consistency of leadership. And so the biggest challenge is the people and the execution. This is David’s biggest challenge on day one.

When I passed this through Zaslav on our Zoom call, he came back to the same point he had insisted on throughout our conversations. “It’s a pure content business,” he said. “That’s why most of us got into this business. We did not enter this business to develop broadband. We didn’t come to this business to sell phones or to build a cloud. The people who got into this business came here because we love to tell stories. We love to create content and bring it to the screen. And that’s all we’re going to do… So I believe that this mission and this content menu, as we’re looking at everything in one place, is going to create the excitement and the energy.

Tuesday July 6, As Allen & Company guests parked one by one at the entrance to the Sun Valley Resort, Zaslav stepped out of a large SUV wearing a blue and white striped t-shirt and hooded vest. . Most of the arriving luminaries had simply ignored the gathered reporters, whose job it was to stand and shout questions they probably knew would not be answered. But Zaslav agreed, which was fortunate for the press, as he was the most recent participant of the five-day gabfest, famous for its underground deals. He walked over with a big smile, revealing a set of Colgate commercial-worthy chompers, and stopped to chat with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin. At first, Zaslav made some brief and unsurprising remarks about how the media industry was prepared to consolidate further. Then he said the four words that gave CNBC its headline: “We’re not done yet.”

It wasn’t entirely clear whether Zaslav was talking about the industry in general or Warner Bros. Discovery in particular, but whatever. The tongues were already moving. In his industry newsletter, “What I’m Hearing,” the former hollywood reporter Editorial Director Matthew Belloni speculated, “This business seems like a total placeholder to me. The Warner deal will be done and either Zaslav or John Malone “- Zaslav’s mentor and Liberty Media chairman -” will call Aryeh “- as in Bourkoff, the banker of the day who negotiated the Warner Discovery combo -” and tell him to find another deal. If it isn’t ViacomCBS, it will be NBCUniversal or Lionsgate or AMC Networks or Sony’s film and television assets. Ladder, ladder, ladder. Zaslav can’t think the combined company will be big enough, can he? “

Can he? I asked him before he jumped out of our Zoom for a meet and greet parade with producers and agents, talents and other Hollywood folks. Is there yet another mega-deal up its sleeve? Warner Bros. Will Discovery still have to grow?

“I think this agreement will be the first sentence of my obituary,” he said, “as Discovery has merged with Warner.” And the second sentence? “It flew away.”

TOILET PRODUCTS, V76 BY VAUGHN; INTERVIEW, VAUGHN ACORD. PRODUCED ON SITE BY COCO KNUDSON. FOR MORE DETAILS GO TO VF.COM/CREDITS.

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