David Zaslav’s California Move Reignites Jeff Zucker Speculation

David Zaslav Discovery Stock Options
Discovery CEO David Zaslav will head west after the WarnerMedia merger.

David Zaslav is definitely going back to Cali after Discovery closes its $43 billion merger with WarnerMedia next year, reigniting speculation that the Warner Bros. Discovery CEO could tap long-time CNN chief Jeff Zucker as his No. 2.

Zaslav has been expected to move to California for months (he bought former Paramount Pictures chieftain Bob Evans’s Beverly Hills mansion in 2020) but confirmed that re-domiciling yesterday (Nov. 10) at the Paley Center for Media’s virtual International Summit. 

“I’m moving to California,” Zaslav said. “That’s where I’m going to live. CNN is a big asset. I’ll come back here and spend time with the CNN asset, but I’m going to live in L.A. with an office on the lot. I’ll be at the lot, I’ll be at Culver City, because that’s where content is made. This is a content company. The better our content is, the better chance we have of being to the leading media company in the world.” 

With Zaslav in California, that could mean he will need a seasoned executive to steer the company’s New York operations: both Discovery and WarnerMedia have offices in the city. That refueled speculation that Zucker, a longtime friend of Zaslav’s dating back to their days at NBC, could be that man.

According to The Information (opens in new tab), Zucker is a likely candidate for Zaslav’s No. 2  because the two have been friends for decades. Prior to becoming Discovery CEO in 2006, Zaslav spent about 18 years at NBC, and counts Zucker as a close friend. Zucker had his ups and downs at the broadcaster but ultimately became CEO of NBCUniversal in 2007. He left NBC in 2012 and joined CNN in 2013.

Zucker’s CNN tenure has been spotty. He was criticized early on for the 24-hour news network’s apparent obsession with an intestinally troubled cruise ship (dubbed the “poop ship”) in 2013 and a year later attracted ire over its incessant coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. But he also boosted CNN’s ratings with its coverage of the ascent and decline of former President Donald Trump.  

In February, Zucker said he would resign at the end of 2021 when his contract is set to expire, but postponed that departure to the first half of next year, when the Discovery deal is expected to close.

Talk of Zucker’s potential return is nothing new, as pundits have been predicting it ever since the Discovery-WarnerMedia deal was unveiled in May. 

Zaslav praised Zucker at the Paley Center conference, but demurred when interviewer Ken Auletta asked whether the CNN executive would find a home within the new structure.

“We’re specifically not speaking to any individuals,” Zaslav said at the Paley conference. “I’ve worked with and for Jeff at NBC. He’s a superb executive. I like Jeff a lot, we’re good friends."

Zaslav added that he has taken the same stance in other Discovery deals with Scripps Networks and Eurosport, adding that the ultimate goal is to find the best people both inside and outside the company to build Warner Bros. Discovery into the best content company it can be. 

"We’ll do that after we close,” he said.

While Zaslav may or may not persuade Zucker to stay, at the Paley Center conference he seemed more intent on repairing bridges with filmmakers burned by the previous management’s (i.e. AT&T) plan last year to make the entire Warner Bros. 2021 movie slate available in theaters and through its HBO Max service on the same day.  

Warner Bros.’s day-and-date strategy, implemented by most likely outgoing WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, may have boosted HBO Max subscriber rolls but it forced some prominent filmmakers to rethink their relationship with the studio. Kilar insisted at the time that the experiment was only to last one year, and Zaslav spent a lot of time at the Paley conference driving that point home, professing his love for motion pictures viewed outside the home.

“Most of the people in this business got into the business because one day they went to the theater with their Mom or their Dad or their friends, the lights went out, there were no phones, they looked up at the screen and something magical happened,” Zaslav said. “And that’s where movie stars are made. Motion pictures, as you take them around the world, can change the culture. And most of the conversations that I’m having with talent, they want to be on the big screen still.”

Zaslav also stressed that as a pure-play content provider, Warner Bros. Discovery won't be distracted by other product lines.

“We’re not going to be saying, should we be spending money on broadband? Should we be spending money on more cloud? Should we be spending money on more infrastructure or our retail reach?” Zaslav said. “Almost every other media company we’ll be competing with, they’re in other businesses. This is a pure-play storytelling company.” 

Speaking of money, Zaslav said Warner Bros. Discovery is likely to boost its content spend in the future, but  added that the big money being shelled out by other streamers to poach showrunners and content developers from other outlets may be coming to a close.     

“There are a lot of players out there that are writing checks and that will get rationalized over the next couple of years, there will be less,” Zaslav said, adding that in the not too distant future, content creators will migrate to companies that give them the biggest exposure.

Netflix made headlines over the past few years by luring traditional TV and film producers like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy  and others with huge contracts to create shows for the streamer. Other services like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV followed suit. 

While Zaslav said that money is important, it won’t be the biggest differentiator, invoking the names of past Warner Bros. chiefs like Steve Ross, Robert Daly and Barry Meyer, who were known for nurturing content creators during their tenures. 

“Ultimately, if that‘s the case, there will be a lot of great talent that will choose to come to Warner Bros. as a place where they will be supported,” Zaslav said.

Mike Farrell is senior content producer, finance for Multichannel News/B+C, covering finance, operations and M&A at cable operators and networks across the industry. He joined Multichannel News in September 1998 and has written about major deals and top players in the business ever since. He also writes the On The Money blog, offering deeper dives into a wide variety of topics including, retransmission consent, regional sports networks,and streaming video. In 2015 he won the Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Profile, an in-depth look at the Syfy Network’s Sharknado franchise and its impact on the industry.