David Zaslav Raises Curtain on Warner Bros. Discovery: ‘This Really Is a Moment for Us as an Industry’

David Zaslav upfront 2022

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav raised the curtain on the combined Warner Bros. Discovery, kicking off the newly merged media giant’s upfront presentation Wednesday morning by declaring the company to be “the largest maker of motion picture and television content in the world.”

Kicking off the presentation at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Zaslav admitted to the packed house that he was “a little nervous” to show off the company that closed its $43 billion transaction with AT&T just six weeks ago.

Zaslav detailed the combined company’s breadth of assets (“We are the global leader in entertainment, lifestyle news and sports”) and its goal of being “a place for bold, impactful storytelling with the power to entertain, inform and when we’re at our best, inspire.”

He described himself as “humbled” by the leadership challenge ahead of him. He took time to call out three legendary media figures that he called “personal heroes”: famed cable pioneer and investor John Malone, cable visionary and CNN founder Ted Turner and the late Warner Bros. leader Steve Ross, who rebuilt the ailing studio starting in the early 1970s into the conglomerate that became Time Warner.

“Steve Ross understood that we are in the storytelling and talent business,” Zaslav said. It was noted by many longtime Warner Bros./HBO observers that all of the executive presenters came from the Discovery side of the equation.

Beyond the importance of the presentation to the new company, Zaslav pointed to the unprecedented upheaval and transformation across the industry. He invoked the memory of the four Polish immigrant brothers who founded the studio in 1923 — Harry, Albert, Jack and Sam — as well as the legacy of another entertainment trailblazer from a generation ago.

“This really is a moment, not just for us as a company but for us as an industry,” Zaslav said. “More than 30 years ago, Rupert Murdoch broadened the media landscape from three players to four.”

Zaslav called out CNN among the company’s many brands, and he once again suggested that there will be some shift in focus for the pioneering global news network.

“There is no news organization in the world like CNN,” he said. “At a time when most news networks are advocacy networks., CNN intends to advocate for journalism first. To advocate for facts and for truth and to advocate for underserved news consumers and Americans who are seeking more accurate information and less yelling and conflict.”

Following Zaslav’s opening comments, Jennifer Hudson — star of Warner Bros.’ upcoming first-run syndicated daytime talk show “Jennifer Hudson” — was employed to tout the depth of the conglomerate, as well as introduce key Warner Bros. Discovery talent. That included Magnolia Network’s Chip and Joanna Gaines, who last year launched the dedicated Magnolia Network last year.

“Our love for home turned into a passion of helping people re-envision their spaces, taking something old or forgotten and making it new again,” Joanna Gaines said. “Our target for Magnolia Network has been the same day since day one: To give rise to new voices. passionate people who are doing inspiring things in their community, to tell their stories that make the world one beautiful place.”

Jon Steinlauf, Warner Bros. Discovery U.S. ad sales chief, was on hand to deliver some classic upfront facts and figures, including the news that 80% of HBO Max and Discovery streaming users watch on a TV set, and more than 50% of them are cord-cutters.

“We now have a seat at the primetime table and we’re making it possible for you to buy a big slice of prime,” Steinlauf said, talking up WBD’s expansive plans for packaging advertising across its cradle-to-grave array of brands.

As promised by Zaslav, the presentation showcased the wide range of media produced under the WB Discovery roof.

Introducing a segment on sports, NBA great Shaquille O’Neal bellowed out a “Are you not entertained?!” Later, he jokingly asked Zaslav whether he’d be fired if he punched his “Inside the NBA” partner Charles Barkley in the face.

Kathleen Finch, WB Discovery’s chief lifestyle brands officer, was introduced by typically enthusiastic Guy Fieri in a pre-taped segment. Finch took the stage to talk up the company’s immense reach, particuarly with women.

“Nearly one-third of all cable television viewers in the 25-54 demo are coming to our U.S. ad-supported entertainment networks every single night,” she said.

New CNN Worldwide chief Chris Licht made his most expansive remarks about his vision for the global news operation since he was named to the role in February following the abrupt exit of his precedessor, Jeff Zucker. He confirmed that Chris Wallace’s show from the short-lived CNN+ — the startup streamer that was shut down after only weeks by the new WB Discovery regime — will relocate to HBO Max on Sunday.

“Wipeout” hosts John Cena and Nicole Byer, as well as “Dirty Jobs” star Mike Rowe, also hit the stage to promote the company’s offerings. And via a pre-tape, OWN’s Oprah Winfrey noted that she spoke with the new WBD team, along with Zaslav, in the first few days of the company’s merger.

“I could not miss a chance to tell you how honored I am to be a part of the Warner Bros. Discovery family, even from 3,000 miles away I can feel your excitement of all of us coming together,” she said. She noted that she is at work with Warner Bros. on the feature side with a remake of “The Color Purple,” which marked her film debut in 1985.

“We are creating another version for another time right now,” she said. “This ain’t your momma’s ‘Color Purple,’ ” she promised.

Warner Bros. Discovery gave quite a bit of time during the event to Hudson, who returned for a comedic bit that played as a dry run for her new talk show, with guests Lil Jon and “Property Brothers” star Jonathan Scott.

Hudson returned again to close the event with a rousing performance of “Respect,” a nod to the fact that she played soul legend Aretha Franklin in the 2021 MGM feature “Respect.”