The captain of Shark Week has a new mission: to take a bite out of Netflix Inc.
chief executive who has catapulted himself to the top of the media world through a wave of deal-making, will lead a new venture formed by his company’s merger with
Mr. Zaslav, 61 years old, has spent 14 years building Discovery into the pre-eminent player in unscripted programming, with shows such as TLC’s “90 Day Fiancé,” Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and HGTV’s “Fixer Upper.”
He has struck deals to add live sports to the company’s lineup, expand its overseas reach and bring new streaming services to market.
Now, Mr. Zaslav is set to add high-end scripted entertainment and news to his empire, with the addition of WarnerMedia’s HBO, CNN and the Warner Bros. studio, among other assets. Research analyst Michael Nathanson estimates the new company will account for 29% of total TV viewing time and 20% of all fees media companies get from monthly cable TV bills.
The true test for Mr. Zaslav is whether he can turn the company’s twin streaming services, HBO Max and Discovery+, into rivals of industry leaders such as Netflix and
Walt Disney Co.
’s Disney+. Signing up streaming customers will become even more urgent as consumers continue to abandon traditional TV service.
“In businesses like global distribution and creation of content, scale is the name of the game,” said
a media mogul and major Discovery shareholder, who is betting on the company’s success. “So can they get enough scale with the content that they can afford to create to be a major competitor to the other established streamers? That’s the question.”
Unlike AT&T CEO
who was relatively unknown in Hollywood when the telecom company acquired Time Warner—later renamed WarnerMedia—Mr. Zaslav is familiar in New York and Los Angeles media circles. A schmoozer known for his annual East Hampton Labor Day party, Mr. Zaslav has struck splashy deals with media mogul Oprah Winfrey, home-improvement gurus Chip and Joanna Gaines and golf legend Tiger Woods.
Mr. Zaslav has been one of the highest-paid CEOs in American corporations. In 2018, he received around $130 million in total compensation, because of an equity grant stemming from a new multiyear contract. His median annual compensation over the past 10 years has been $42 million.
Discovery’s profit have more than doubled since Mr. Zaslav took the company public in 2008, and its revenue grew to $10.7 billion in 2020 from $3.52 billion in 2009. The Covid-19 pandemic curtailed Discovery’s ad revenue and triggered the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan; Discovery holds rights to air the Olympics in international markets. The company’s stock swung wildly in recent months, driven partly by the rapid liquidation of positions owned by the family investment firm Archegos Capital Management.
Mr. Zaslav recently signed a new contract that would keep him at the new company through 2027, according to a person familiar with the matter. Axios earlier reported on Mr. Zaslav’s new contract.
Mr. Zaslav already has relationships with senior executives at WarnerMedia. He is friends with Warner Bros. studio chief Toby Emmerich, CNN President Jeff Zucker and director Steven Spielberg. Mr. Zaslav plans to take an office on the Warner Bros. lot.
Mr. Zucker previously indicated that he was planning to leave CNN when his contract expires later this year. “Jeff is an extraordinary talent,” Mr. Zaslav said Monday. “It’s all about the talent, and so we’ll be trying to figure out, how do we get the best people to stay.”
Mr. Zaslav got his start in the media industry in 1985, working as a young lawyer for the now-defunct New York law firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae LLP, where he struck deals with distributors on behalf of TV programmers.
He quickly fell in love with the cable-TV industry, said John Hendricks, the founder of Discovery and a longtime associate of Mr. Zaslav.
“He was fascinated by the origins of the cable business,” Mr. Hendricks said. “At one point he was even planning on writing a book about cable.”
Mr. Zaslav’s first job in media was at NBCUniversal in 1989, then owned by General Electric Co. He wrote NBCUniversal executive Bob Wright an unsolicited letter outlining the possibilities of a role at the company and was hired to strike distribution deals. He was a key architect in developing the channel that became MSNBC.
Mr. Zaslav took over at Discovery in 2007, months before the financial crisis sent markets into turmoil. As the banking sector was still reeling, he cut Discovery’s workforce by about 26% and slimmed down its corporate operations, boosting profit.
Over the next decade, Mr. Zaslav built Discovery with a series of deals. Since 2010, Discovery has launched cable channel OWN with Ms. Winfrey and has taken control of European sports channel Eurosport. In Mr. Zaslav’s biggest move before the AT&T deal, he reached a roughly $12 billion agreement in 2017 to acquire Scripps Networks Interactive, the parent of Food Network and home-improvement programming specialist HGTV, expanding Discovery’s TV empire and adding a female-skewing audience.
Discovery made its first major push in direct-to-consumer streaming in 2018. Mr. Zaslav hired Peter Faricy, a former executive at Amazon.com Inc., to inject a dose of Silicon Valley acumen into the company. Mr. Faricy brought aboard technology talent from Amazon, recruiting executives including Chief Technology Officer Avi Saxena, and streamlined Discovery’s streaming operations, saving the company millions of dollars in expenses from technology vendors, according to a person familiar with the matter.
But Mr. Zaslav and Mr. Faricy occasionally found themselves at loggerheads, the person said, in part because Mr. Faricy approached streaming from a product and user perspective and Mr. Zaslav was concerned mainly with Discovery’s cable distribution partners. Mr. Faricy left the company last year, joining renewable-energy firm SunPower in April, leaving Mr. Saxena in charge of streaming operations. The Information earlier reported on the tensions between Messrs. Zaslav and Faricy.
Another person close to the situation attributed the friction to Mr. Faricy’s transition from Silicon Valley to a traditional media company.
In April, Discovery said it had 15 million subscribers for its direct-to-consumer video-streaming services, which include Discovery+, Eurosport Player and Food Network Kitchen. AT&T doesn’t break out numbers for HBO Max alone but has said that, combined with HBO, there are 44.2 million subscribers, most of them HBO-only customers. By comparison, Netflix had 207 million subscribers globally as of the first quarter, while Disney+ had 103.6 million.
—Joe Flint contributed to this article.
Write to Benjamin Mullin at Benjamin.Mullin@wsj.com
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