×

The Fate of Top WarnerMedia Execs in Question After Announcement of Discovery Merger

Warner Media Jeff Zucker Jason Kilar
Zucker: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP Images; Kilar: Courtesy Julie Cahill/Jason Kilar

As soon as news broke May 16 about AT&T’s proposed deal to combine WarnerMedia with Discovery, the guessing game began about what the megadeal would mean for top executives at the company.

The initial takeaways: It’s a good sign for CNN boss Jeff Zucker and a bad omen for Jason Kilar, who in his one year in the job as CEO of WarnerMedia might have ruffled too many feathers as he tried to refashion the company for the streaming wars.

Discovery CEO David Zaslav is set to run the new combined entity, and Kilar was not party to the deal talks, suggesting that AT&T CEO John Stankey had lost confidence in the ex-Hulu chief ’s approach and strategy after hiring him last year.

Specifically, the move by Kilar to summarily decide to release Warner Bros.’ 2021 movie slate day-and-date on HBO Max — angering talent and theater owners who were caught unawares — could cost the studio more than $1 billion in lost box office revenue without generating streaming gains to offset that.

Zucker, who had been said to clash with Kilar, had announced he was leaving CNN and WarnerMedia at the end of 2021 when his contract expires. Now, with his friend and former colleague Zaslav coming in to run the Discovery-WarnerMedia show, Zucker might play a larger role in the new company. Zaslav affirmed that he wants to invest in the cable news unit. “Hoping there will be an opportunity for Jeff to stay with us,” Zaslav said in an interview with CNN.

For his part, Kilar is said to be looking to bail out from WarnerMedia with a golden parachute. When he signed on to the company in 2020, the executive received AT&T stock options valued at $48 million (scheduled to vest in increments through 2024). Kilar also is subject to a one-year non-compete clause and a one-year ban on his soliciting WarnerMedia employees for other ventures.

On May 17, Kilar sent a memo to WM staffers with typical business-as-usual bromides — as well as a note of gratitude: “I don’t take any days on the WarnerMedia team for granted.”

Other top executives to watch amid the merger fallout:

CASEY BLOYS
Chief Content Officer, HBO/HBO Max
Bloys’ strong track record after he was pressed into service to lead HBO Max originals last year in addition to HBO probably buys him job security. He’s an HBO veteran whose institutional knowledge will be of value to the new regime.

CHANNING DUNGEY
Chairman, Warner Bros. Television Group
Dungey, an alum of Disney and Netflix, has been on the job for only five months. The highly regarded industry veteran has barely had time to articulate an agenda — and now that will be a more complicated process as the studio goes into merger limbo for another year.

TOBY EMMERICH
Chairman, Warner Bros. Pictures Group
What a difference a merger makes. A few weeks ago, Hollywood was abuzz with rumors that Emmerich, who is under contract, might be on the way out. But the spinoff makes him more valuable than ever. He has real movie chops, something that the Discovery team lacks, and Zaslav might be loath to get rid of a veteran executive during a period of instability.

ANN SARNOFF
Chair and CEO, WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group
Sarnoff was hand-picked for the top job at Warner Bros. by Stankey. The former president of BBC Studios Americas faced doubters from day one about whether she had the right background for run- ning such a large content factory. But word is that Stankey has made it clear to the Discovery team that Sarnoff needs to play a big role going forward.

Cynthia Littleton and Brent Lang contributed to this report.