Speaking with veteran media writer Ken Auletta at the Paley Center for Media’s online International Council Summit, Zaslav expanded on his comments in recent months. He has often mentioned having bought Woodland, the Beverly Hills home long owned by late Paramount chief Robert Evans and talked of having an office on the Warner lot. But today’s discussion put a finer point on all of that.
“I’m moving to California,” Zaslav declared. “That’s where I’m going to live. … I’m going to get up most days, I’m going to live in LA, with an office on the lot.” The reason, he explained, is simple. “That’s where the content is made. This is a content company. The better content we have, the better chance we have of being the leading media company in the world. I’ve been there, it’s invigorating.”
Discovery and WarnerMedia parent AT&T expect the $43 billion merger to close by mid-2022. Zaslav declined to reveal specific organizational plans when asked by Auletta whether he planned to install a deputy to look after the company’s vast studio and network operations.
“I’m going to be very hands-on” in running the new company, Zaslav emphasized. “For me, this deal is kind of a dream, surreal opportunity. These are brands that I have admired and loved, built by people I have admired and loved over the past 30 years.”
Auletta elicited some of the most provocative comments of the session when he asked Zaslav about the news business and his expected stewardship of CNN. At one point, he asked whether Zaslav, who helped create MSNBC when he worked at NBC in a prior career chapter, thought Fox News did “a good job” as a news organization.
“I think Fox News is much more of an advocacy network than a news network,” Zaslav said. “That’s the business I’m in, with Food Network and HGTV. Those are advocacy networks.”
In the 1990s, when MSNBC and Fox News launched, Zaslav said, “the world was in a different place. I think overall we’d probably be better off if we just had news networks in America,” rather than those with an opinion element. “But we don’t. Media tends to be a reflection of where the country is. Where the country was when we launched MSNBC was much more fact-based and less divided.”
Targeted media platforms today, from podcasts to newsletters, have enabled people to “find their voice,” Zaslav continued. “And then you have networks that emerged that look to support and nourish and reinforce those voices. I don’t think overall that’s a good thing. I think we’re better off all having a chance to see, as Carl Bernstein would say, the best version of the facts that we have.”
As to the future of news and sports chief Jeff Zucker, who oversees CNN, Zaslav said he could not comment. Prior to the merger announcement last May, Zucker had indicated plans to step down by the end of 2021. “Jeff’s a good friend and I like him a lot,” he said, but said he would not be able to reveal plans for CNN until we close.
Zaslav declined to take the bait when Auletta asked him about Dave Chappelle’s The Closer and the avalanche of problems the special brought to Netflix. Asked what he thought of the special, Zaslav said, “I saw it” and said he would leave issues surrounding charges of transphobia within and without Netflix to the company’s management.
On the topic of Netflix, Zaslav mentioned the streaming giant and Disney as the two companies whose competitive threat looms the largest. At the same time, he was more dismissive of Netflix’s position relative to the combined WarnerMedia-Discovery in terms of original content production. He said Warner Bros and Disney are “makers” as opposed to “pickers,” i.e. companies mostly in the acquisition business. (The maker-vs.-picker dichotomy, Zaslav said, stemmed from a comment former GE chief Jack Welch made during his tenure overseeing NBC’s then-parent.)
“We’re a very different company than Netflix,” Zaslav said. “Netflix is a great company. … There’s a lot that we could all learn. In many ways, I think in the next few years, we’ll look back and see that they disrupted this entire industry. Now, maybe if it wasn’t them, it would have been someone else because consumers wanted content whenever they wanted it, wherever they wanted it but Netflix was there and seized the moment.”
At the same time, Zaslav added, talent will be attracted to a company with Warner Bros’ heritage and ability to open a movie theatrically around the world. “That’s how movie stars are made,” he said. “In the conversations I’m having, the best and the brightest of talent, they want to be on the big screen still.”
Auletta reminded Zaslav that Netflix spends $17 billion a year on programming, most of it now originals. “Netflix makes some content,” the CEO acknowledged. “Every media company makes content. But Disney and Warner Bros are the most prolific makers of content, with the most amount of talent under contract.”
As far as major talent deals — several of which Netflix has locked up at healthy, mid-nine-figure levels — Zaslav predicted that they will decline in value in the coming years. “One of the reasons there are so many checks” being written “is that there are so many players,” he said. “And a lot of those players are desperate for content because they’re sub-scale, so they’ll pay higher and higher prices.”