OMG, They Killed Kilar! AT&T Backstabs Its Own Hatchet Man

OMG, They Killed Kilar! &T Backstabs
Variety Intelligence Platform

Leave it to the company that brought you “Game of Thrones” to be briefly led by an executive who lived by the sword and died by the sword.

Jason Kilar, the executive CEO John Stankey entrusted with cutting down the ranks of WarnerMedia and beheading some of the TV industry’s most respected figures in the process, just got a taste of his own medicine. As The New York Times first reported Monday, he’s negotiating his own exit from the company in the wake of its announcement to join forces with Discovery — a deal for which he was reportedly kept out of negotiations.

The schadenfreude flowing through Hollywood is surely at peak levels today considering the ill will that came Kilar’s way in the wake of his audacious decision to blindside the creative community with his move last year to release day and date the Warner Bros. entire film slate on HBO Max and in theaters.

The question then becomes, did Stankey truly support Kilar for his audacious moves, which he was clearly brought in to make in the first place, or did AT&T underestimate the blowback that would come from bringing in a bold visionary unafraid to make enemies in pursuit of the right strategic goal?

It’s hard not to read the combination of Kilar’s exit and Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s ascendance as a referendum on proper media-business management. It’s both a repudiation of the Silicon Valley-bred “move fast and break things” ethos Kilar lived by and a renewed appreciation of the steadier stylings a traditional mogul like Zaslav brings to the table.

Just imagine what distinguished, discarded WarnerMedia alums like Kevin Reilly and Robert Greenblatt are thinking right now, not to mention thousands of other lower-ranking employees who got the shaft.

Karma, meet Kilar. Kilar, Karma.

As comedowns come in Hollywood, you can’t get one that more accurately reaffirms the aphorism “the bigger they come, the harder they fall. Just last Friday, Kilar was treated to a fairly glowing profile in The Wall Street Journal, the kind of story that crowns executives who stay in their jobs for a long time to come. His future never seemed so assured, his maverick ways never more validated.

And now here we are standing around the chalk outline of Kilar’s body, our jaws on the floor, registering the kind of shock with which Kenny’s friends once greeted his repeated deaths on  “South Park,” one of the marquee TV attractions on HBO Max.

If there is anyone who can understand the hostility Kilar was facing in Hollywood, it’s Jeff Zucker, who made his share of enemies back in his final years at NBCUniversal. Which makes it all the more juicy that now with Kilar’s fate clear, the attention can turn to CNN’s leader.

It’s possible AT&T and Discovery were deluded enough to think they could keep Kilar in the fold, which was never going to happen. It’s hard to believe there’s any scenario where the triumvirate of Zaslav, Zucker and Kilar rule coexists.

Here’s a summation of the conventional wisdom on the palace intrigue at play here: Zucker’s previous decision to exit CNN was at least in part influenced by his aversion to Kilar, who reportedly made some key decisions impacting WarnerMedia’s news brand without consulting Zucker. Regardless, Kilar has been publicly supportive of Zucker.

Meanwhile, if there is any executive Zucker does take a shine to, it’s Zaslav. They once worked together for many years at NBCUniversal but have kept their relationship strong from the close distance of their respective Hamptons properties. If anyone has a shot at getting Zucker to stay on to oversee CNN, where he took the brand to new heights navigating the rough waters of the Trump years, it’s Zaslav.

Obviously, Kilar was the likeliest odd man out given Zucker and Zaslav seem far more aligned, and there’s only so many cooks that can be in a kitchen operated by the owners of Food Network, WarnerMedia-Discovery. (The new entity is still unnamed but here’s a suggestion: How about just “WMD”? Talk about a loaded acronym!)

Surely Zucker can’t just be simply tucked back into the same oversight he previously had over CNN and Turner Sports without coming back in some new expanded, exalted role — one that perhaps could include HBO Max now that Kilar is out.

But even if Zucker loves Zaslav, will he be content to play second banana to anyone? You have to wonder whether Zaslav might even need to pull a Reed Hastings, who was willing to make Ted Sarandos his co-CEO.

Now that we know what is going to happen to Kilar, Zucker is the man to watch next.