When speaking about David Zaslav, even the most cynical executives can barely restrain themselves from gushing. Lloyd Blankfein, the former Goldman Sachs chief executive, struggles to think of something critical, or even neutral, to say about his longtime friend.
“I normally don’t like people. He’s kind of an exception. I find it hard to be snarky about him,” Blankfein says. “If you go out to dinner, he wears those stupid insignia vests . . . He’s got that ‘golly gee’ aspect and he’s so enthusiastic that sometimes I get tired just talking to him. I have to rest up. But it’s all positive.”
That Tiggerish energy, cut with relentless ambition, this week helped Zaslav engineer the media coup of the decade: not only uniting his much smaller Discovery group with WarnerMedia, but then taking command of the combined entity, the world’s second-biggest entertainment company by revenue.
Even as technology groups overrun a business moving to streaming, Zaslav’s ascent has shown that the alpha-male old guard of media, who cut their teeth in an era of satellite dishes and VHS, can still call the shots in Hollywood. With one deal, Zaslav has neared the power status of his business idols: his old boss Jack Welch, his mentor John Malone, Ted Turner of CNN, and the brothers Harry and Jack Warner.
An executive known for reality shows including 90 Day Fiance and Man vs Bear will, if the merger is completed, preside over one of Hollywood’s most coveted assets, spanning HBO, CNN and the Warner Bros studio. “He is a sort of East Coast, sweater vest wearing, cable TV guy,” says a former colleague. “And a load of people in Hollywood are in shock that someone who is as gauche as him gets to run away with the crown jewels.”
But those crown jewels come with $55bn in debt taken on as part of the AT&T agreement. Zaslav must master a new streaming business model, which requires heavy losses before reaching profitability and may never achieve the margins that traditional television enjoyed. And he must do it on a global scale with WarnerMedia, a company ravaged by restructuring in recent years.
Zaslav was born in Brooklyn in 1960 and grew up in Rockland County, New York, about an hour north of the city. After training at law school, he quickly took to the television business with NBC in the 1980s, when broadcast television was king and cable was largely viewed as lowbrow. In 1987 he married his high school sweetheart, Pam, in the Hamptons, where they now throw a legendary end-of-summer party.
When Zaslav joined Discovery in 2007, the financial crisis was looming, and Netflix was about to start streaming. He managed to triple revenues, generate 57 per cent profit margins in the US and expand with the acquisitions of Scripps and Eurosport.
Yet Zaslav’s biggest accomplishment was pulling off this week’s $43bn deal with his golf buddy John Stankey, the AT&T chief executive who three years earlier had paid $85bn for it. The talks were so secretive that Zaslav did not even hint about it to close friends such as CNN’s Jeff Zucker or Jeff Bewkes, the former Time Warner chief who met him days before it was announced.
Discovery was instantly transformed from a likely also-ran to a player with the potential to take on Netflix and Disney. Zaslav’s challenge: building out Warner-Discovery’s sprawling array of brands, stations and streaming services into a platform with the 200m-plus subscribers it needs to be among the handful of big groups left standing in a revolutionised Hollywood.
Richard Plepler, the former HBO chief executive who left shortly after AT&T took over in 2018, is optimistic. “[Zaslav] is an energy force and superb strategic mind with a love of the actual business that he’s running. He loves HBO, he loves CNN and Warner Bros,” he says. “That’s the secret sauce.”
Bewkes, who sold Time Warner to AT&T in 2016, believes Zaslav will bring a “much-needed jolt of trust” from Warner employees. “They are saying: oh thank god. AT&T wasn’t listening. Discovery will listen,” he says.
For all the bonhomie, Zaslav can be a hard taskmaster, sending emails at all hours of the night. One old colleague called him “mercurial” and sometimes “shouty” with staff. “But then he kind of charms them, even people he has fired,” says the former executive.
“He is the kind of person that everybody roots for,” says Blankfein. “I’ve been rooted for and rooted against, and it’s much better to be the person that people root for.”
His drive is matched by his handsome package: his $129m in 2018 made Zaslav the most highly compensated chief executive in the US. On the eve of the WarnerMedia deal, he was given stock options currently valued at close to $190m.
On Tuesday the fast-moving executive listed for sale his Greenwich Village townhouse, where he met Stankey to hash out the deal that will send him to Los Angeles more often. Last year he paid $16m for a Beverly Hills mansion once owned by The Godfather producer Bob Evans — a purchase that foreshadowed his next act.
“I’m going to find myself an office on the Warner Bros lot,” Zaslav declared on Monday. “I’ll be in New York. I’ll be anywhere in the world where the creatives are . . . because that’s what’s going to make us great.”