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Warner Bros Discovery's David Zaslav Has Charmed the Hollywood Elite — Now He'll Have to Show He Can Manage Them, Too

CNBC
  • David Zaslav officially takes over as the new CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery as the company begins trading on the Nasdaq on Monday.
  • Zaslav is known for his gregarious personality and has been on a monthslong "listening tour" of Hollywood.
  • Friends say he has a chance to be Hollywood's next leader with high emotional intelligence, but he'll have to be careful not to disenfranchise current leadership or get bogged down in minutia.
  • "It may be the right time for a new man because the industry is changing so rapidly," longtime Zaslav associate Lloyd Blankfein told CNBC.

Hollywood is about to get a jolt of emotional intelligence.

David Zaslav, longtime chief executive officer of Discovery, is now officially CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery — the culmination of a merger announced last May. The newly combined company began trading on the Nasdaq on Monday using its new ticker, WBD. The shares were little changed at $24.45 in late-morning trading Monday.

Zaslav is not new to the media scene. He has run Discovery Communications as its CEO since 2006. Before that, he ran NBCUniversal's cable and domestic television unit. (Disclosure: Zaslav helped found CNBC.) Through the years, he's made headlines for his outsized compensation.

But he's never been a Hollywood executive. Most of Discovery's programming is reality TV or nature-focused, such as its "Shark Week" slate. Zaslav has spent most of the last year on an all-consuming "listening tour" of Hollywood, preparing himself for running a company that includes Warner Bros. studio and HBO, the homes of Batman and "Game of Thrones," respectively.

While his lack of experience may concern some investors, his unique combination of experience in veteran media CEO and novice Hollywood executive roles may be the perfect recipe for the times, said Lloyd Blankfein, former Goldman Sachs CEO who has known Zaslav for more than a decade. Blankfein worked directly with Zaslav when Discovery hired Goldman to finance its merger with Scripps in 2017.

"It may be the right time for a new man because the industry is changing so rapidly," Blankfein said. "In most contexts, experience is a great virtue. In a rapidly evolving industry, too much experience can be a liability. David is a fairly unique combination — an old media type that's also a fresh face."

Zaslav wasn't available to comment for this story.

Personality over experience

Zaslav has a chance to step into a role previously held by people such as former HBO chief Richard Plepler and ex-Disney CEO Bob Iger: the gregarious, high-EQ chief executive who can connect to Hollywood talent as a human being as much as a businessman.

Zaslav's naturally inquisitive and modest personality should be a good fit for Hollywood, even though it can be a cold place for outsiders, said Tom Freston, the former Viacom CEO who has been friends with Zaslav for more than two decades.

"He doesn't have the creative chops of Iger and Plepler, but what he's got is very high EQ," said Freston. "He's not going to come in as an all-knowing guy. He has tremendous interpersonal skills."

The timing for Zaslav's ascension couldn't be better for grooming Hollywood talent. While Netflix leaders Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos are veterans, Disney, Amazon, NBCUniversal and Paramount Global have all gone through leadership changes at the top in recent years. Unlike Iger, Disney CEO Bob Chapek isn't known for his people skills. Outgoing WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar has acknowledged he didn't do a great job communicating his decision to move all of his company's 2021 films to HBO Max on the same day they hit theaters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, Zaslav needs to be cognizant of allowing executives who are already at WarnerMedia to control their divisions, said Freston. While Zaslav may want to take lunches with every Hollywood creator in Los Angeles (Zaslav moved to LA specifically to ingratiate himself with the entertainment community), he will need to make sure he doesn't unintentionally alienate Casey Bloys, HBO and HBO Max's chief content officer, and Toby Emmerich, who runs the Warner Bros. film studio.

"My advice to him has been, meet as many people as you can, but you don't want to disenfranchise Toby and Casey and the others who report to him," said Freston. "Agents are going to be all over him. He's going to have to figure out a way to set up a barrier where it doesn't look like he's shutting everybody off, but he also empowers his people to make decisions rather than overrun them."

Zaslav also risks getting bogged down in Hollywood minutia rather than focusing on running his company, which has some significant structural issues. The new Warner Bros. Discovery will have $55 billion in debt, and that will likely result in coming job losses that could hurt company morale. WarnerMedia has already absorbed several rounds of job losses and executive shake-ups that have negatively affected culture. One of Zaslav's big tasks will be to remake a creative culture for a division that's been run by a phone company since 2018.

David Zaslav
Anjali Sundaram | CNBC
David Zaslav

Zaslav also needs to convince Wall Street that his company's streaming strategy can compete with Netflix and Disney+ on a global stage. He hasn't defined what that strategy is yet, and he'll need to balance that with a legacy cable network business that is slowly dying but still brings in billions of dollars each year.

"Iger did it successfully with Disney," said former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, a longtime friend of Zaslav's. "David's going to want to be front and center in Hollywood for the few months or maybe the first year. This is a new administration, and he's the head of that administration. Then, I'd imagine he'll take a step back because he's got a lot of things to get done, and this company has a lot of things that need to be fixed."

'A full pizza in a box'

Zaslav is known as a connector of big personalities.

One of the first things friends bring up about him is his ability to intimately connect with people, even when surrounded by others. For years, Zaslav threw large parties for hundreds of people at his house in the Hamptons on Long Island, New York. He'd go out of his way to invite people from finance, technology, media and other industries to mingle and network — and listen to famous musicians such as Diana Ross, Rod Stewart and Earth, Wind & Fire, who he'd hire to perform at his house.

"He'll get food trucks outside. One year I went home with a full pizza in a box," Freston said. "He's a modest guy, but throwing a party like those was a generous act on his part that maybe signaled his ambitions."

He also makes a point to send unusually high-quality Discovery-themed swag to all sorts of people in the media and entertainment industry every year. Friends say they're frequently surprised to receive fleece vests, Bombas socks, popcorn makers and other plush stuffed animals in the mail each year in Discovery gift baskets for holidays and special events.

"He's the male Jackie O.," said Carter, referring to the late first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

"He's one of the most popular people I've ever met in my life. He probably wishes there was a fourth meal in the day so he can meet even more people," Carter added. "He's like one of the guys who started Hollywood. He's comfortable out there."

Beyond Hollywood, Zaslav will have to earn trust with his own people. One former WarnerMedia executive said the biggest thing Zaslav can do is cheerlead. Letting Warner employees, including top executives, know that their work is appreciated and understood can be even more important than adding his own insight.

WATCH: 'I think the opportunity is outside the U.S.' Michael Nathanson says of Warner Bros. Discovery

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