Ann Sarnoff’s selection as CEO of Warner Bros came as a surprise to many media and studio observers. In an interview with Deadline on Monday, she said her three decades working in the upper echelons of media, sports and business distinguished her as a candidate to replace Kevin Tsujihara, even if her name was not on the lips of many in Hollywood.
“The industry is moving at such a rapid pace and John [Stankey, CEO of WarnerMedia] is looking for someone with a track record of building brands and building franchises,” she said.
While leading BBC Studios Americas, Sarnoff expanded the horizons of Doctor Who and Top Gear as well as the BBC Earth natural history brand. (Her career has also included executive stints at the NBA and Dow Jones.) During a 10-year run at Viacom, she was EVP Consumer Products and Business Development, helping build a multibillion-dollar business with the likes of Blue’s Clues and Rugrats. She also led teams that developed the TV Land and Noggin networks and also served as COO for VH1 and CMT.
One area where Sarnoff has less experience is feature film, though Warner Bros Television brought in slightly more revenue than film in the first quarter, $1.6 billion versus $1.5 billion. Also, Toby Emmerich at the film studio has also been a steady hand guiding the slate, keeping the company solidly in the No. 2 spot behind Disney in terms of market share. Geraldine Laybourne, who was running Nickelodeon when Sarnoff arrived at Viacom, dismissed the notion that a lack of film background should be viewed as a liability. “She has an innate understanding of consumers,” she told Deadline in an interview. “That will be incredibly valuable to the studio.”
Sources had indicated that choosing the first female executive to lead Warner Bros was a distinctly possible outcome of the search, given the circumstances of Tsujihara’s exit earlier this year. The former CEO acknowledged lapses in judgment in his dealings with actress Charlotte Kirk, and the studio had also cut ties with director and producer Brett Ratner in 2018 in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and assault.
Sarnoff maintained that her gender did not play a central role in her getting the job. “I was judged by my accomplishments and not because I am a woman,” she said.
Stankey is still making his way in media circles and while he brings a wealth of experience from his decades climbing to near the top of the AT&T ladder, he is now immersed in a radical makeover of a well-established entertainment outfit. As a considerable number of senior-level executives leave the fold, Stankey has installed veterans like Bob Greenblatt, chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment, and now Sarnoff in key positions requiring an industry background.
Sarnoff’s experience at BBC spearheading direct-to-consumer streaming initiatives also helped her cause as WarnerMedia gets set to launch a major subscription streaming offering in late 2019 and more fully in 2020.
The new Warner CEO said she developed a bond quickly with Stankey in their conversations about the role.
“I liked John immediately and knew he was a really smart, thoughtful guy and we connected immediately and started talking big picture and it went from there,” she said. “We quickly developed a mutual respect and trust.”
Stankey, who was not available for an interview, has focused on breaking down the long-established silos that separated divisions of the former Time Warner, which AT&T acquired for $81 billion in a deal that closed in 2018. “I’m definitely a whole-is-bigger-than-the-sum-of-the-parts person,” Sarnoff said. “Cross-pollination is part of who I am as a person, as an executive. It’s one of the through-lines of my career.”
Sarnoff, 57, has mostly been based in New York but plans to move to the studio lot in Burbank over the coming weeks, assuming her new role by the latter half of the summer. She is part of a media family, with her husband, Richard Sarnoff, heading the media, entertainment, and education efforts in the U.S. for private equity firm KKR. Before joining the firm, he held several top executive positions in the publishing business. His great-uncle, David Sarnoff, earned the nickname “The General” from his industry-shaping tenure as chairman RCA, where he shaped the evolution of both radio and television in the early- to mid-20th century.
In the interview, Ann Sarnoff didn’t catalog a lot of detailed plans out of the gate, instead describing the larger task at hand. The main challenge, as she described it, is broader than the integration with other divisions or with parent company AT&T, though both are important — it’s meeting media consumers where they live. “We need to emotionally connect with our audiences and build a connection that can last into future generations. They’re experiencing entertainment differently than any generation previously.” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who was Sarnoff’s colleague during her tenure at the league, which included two years as COO of the WNBA, said the new Warner Bros. boss is up to the challenge. “At a time when the media and entertainment landscape is rapidly changing, Ann’s forward-thinking and ability to build consensus among her colleagues will be an asset to Warner Bros. and WarnerMedia,” SIlver said via email.
“You start with such a solid base” with a nearly century-old company such as Warner Bros. “It is such an amazing institution. … You start with such a solid base. I’m looking forward to getting on the lot and getting to know the whole team.”