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David Zaslav reboots WarnerMedia in his own image

Apr 22, 2022
Illustration of a hand holding a needle that is about to pop a bunch of balloons that is holding up the CNN+ logo.

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

David Zaslav's stunning decision to axe CNN+ less than a month after it launched is the latest example of how he's quickly remaking WarnerMedia into his own.

Why it matters: It's further proof that Discovery's merger with WarnerMedia was not a merger at all. It was a takeover.

Catch up fast: Zaslav is known for his extreme loyalty to those who he has worked with for years. Just look at who was installed in senior leadership positions at Warner Bros. Discovery:

  • Gunnar Wiedenfels, Bruce Campbell and David Leavy have all worked with Zaslav for years. Campbell goes back with Zaslav to their days at NBCUniversal in the mid-2000s.
  • Discovery's longtime ad sales chief Jon Steinlauf also holds the same position with Warner Bros. Discovery.
  • Kathleen Finch, who came over to Discovery when it bought Scripps Networks Interactive in 2018, was put in charge of WBD's massive list of cable networks.
  • Many of WarnerMedia's top executives, including CEO Jason Kilar, HBO Max chief Andy Forsell and Warner Bros. head Ann Sarnoff, were jettisoned to make room for Zaslav's lieutenants.
  • Only HBO/HBO Max content head Casey Bloys, and Toby Emmerich and Channing Dungey, who lead Warner Bros.' film and TV groups, respectively, were kept on board.

Be smart: Zaslav's plan all along was to "copy and paste" how they handled the Scripps takeover, sources familiar with the integration tell Axios' Sara Fischer.

  • As he just did with WBD, Zaslav absorbed Scripps and put Discovery execs in charge of many of the corporate functions, while keeping Scripps' content team in place with Finch, who gained oversight of Discovery's cable networks as well.

Between the lines: Though CNN+'s quick demise undoubtedly stings for many at the news company, it was a fait accompli once Zucker was kicked out.

  • The decision to eventually shutter CNN+ was made before Zucker’s replacement Chris Licht technically started; his first day in May 2. (Sara has much more on CNN+'s very short life).

By the numbers: From a pure headcount, WarnerMedia is three times the size of Discovery.

  • WarnerMedia has 30,000 employees, while Discovery has 10,000.
  • That's part of why Zaslav brought in Discovery's leadership with him, the source added. The idea was to remove as much friction between the "WarnerMedia" and "Discovery" teams as possible. (💭 Tim's thought bubble: Those 30,000 people can't revolt if Discovery executives are their bosses).
  • This imbalance also extended to investors: AT&T stockholders received 71% of WBD shares when the deal closed.

What's next: No major round of layoffs is expected until after Warner Bros. Discovery's May 18 upfront, though there may be some big names that leave the company from now until then, the source added.

  • But once the dust has settled, does Zaslav go on another shopping spree?
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