Too Much TV: Your TV Talking Points For Thursday, May 18th, 2023
David Zaslav really doesn't understand journalism
Here's everything you need to know about the world of television for Thursday, May 18th, 2023.
DAVID ZASLAV REALLY DOESN'T UNDERSTAND JOURNALISM
If there is one overriding lesson you can learn from America's CEO class, it's that being good at one thing doesn't translate into success in every aspect of your business life. Executives tend to be the first people in the room to drink their own Kool-Aid, and more than one formerly thriving business has been run into the ground by a CEO who mistakes their "gut" for actionable strategy.
I think many of us have worked for a boss who gets an idea stuck in their head and refuse to consider any other course of action until the business is in flames and the fire trucks are on the way. Passion and determination are great qualities, but it can sometimes be a fine line between confidence and stubborness. The problem for all of us is that when the boss gets a bad idea stuck in their head, we're screwed. If it doesn't work, it's not the boss's fault. It's the minions below who weren't able to execute the leader’s amazing vision.
Aside from being someone who should never, ever wear a ski vest again, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is by all accounts a very self-confident person. He is not afraid to remind employees that he has been in the business a long time and that he has a vision of what will work. It's not that he doesn't listen to other people. But having spoken over the years with a number of people who have interacted with him, the image I have gotten of his management style is that he is a believer in the "lead from the top down" approach. He'll listen and then likely do what he had planned to do in the first place. And he is apparently also very fond of listening to his gut when making potentially game-changing decisions.
Zaslav championed the idea of combining HBO Max and Discovery+ and in fact, he spent a lot of time before the merger finalized talking about how that obvious synergy was the only logical move. Until months later, when he changed course after he came to realize the truth people had been advising him about since the beginning. There were real technical and financial reasons why the combination was a bad idea. Then Zaslav publicly pivoted to claiming that keeping the streamers as separate platforms was the logical move and implied in interviews that he might have been one of the few people at the company who was able to discern the truth.
I thought about all of this today as I watched Zaslav's presentation at an investor's conference. Sure, those of us who are mere mortals might wonder why you would skip the company's investor call but make a speech in front of investors the following day. But that is just an unimportant detail.
Two comments from the executive made news. And by "news," I mean that he said things that sparked a number of think pieces and hot take rants in the entertainment news world.
First, he defended CNN and the performance of network head Chris Licht, who has come under fire for shifting programs in an effort to make the channel appear less "left-leaning." This has been a familiar argument from Zaslav as well Warner Bros. Discovery investor John Malone, both of whom have pushed for what they describe as a "non-partisan" version of CNN.
It's been clear that what the two men see as "non-partisan" is a news channel that is more right-leaning and less confrontational with guests. For instance, criticizing Donald Trump was seen as inherently partisan. Which is not at all how journalism works.
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In Thursday's presentation, Zaslav said the network has been making changes - such as bringing in more Republican guests - which will change the perception of viewers. He said that Republicans should appear on the network, because “they’re not going to get one more vote on Fox News.”
No matter what perception of CNN's overall political leanings, the network has never been shy about having on Republican guests and contributors. In fact, the network was a favorite stop for former Trump aides and flunkies looking for a quick cable news paycheck. So it's clearly not about having on more right-leaning guests. It's about shifting from a news-based approach to something more like a Washington-based version of The View.
And in fact, Zaslav said on Thursday that CNN would strive to highlight "both sides of every issue," which I suppose means that viewers will soon be lucky enough to see new primetime host Charles Barkley moderating a discussion on whether or not the Earth is flat. Sometimes there are issues that don't have two sides, even if you can find a few people who believe in the unbelievable. "Tonight on CNN Primetime....is Stevie Wonder really blind or was he just pretending to be blind in order to boost his career?"
I am not the first person to note that the only real consequence of the editorial changes at CNN has been a continuing slide in ratings, with the network sometimes trailing runner-up conservative news network NewsMax in primetime. And that's my real problem with this shift into faux non-partisanship. Even if it's successful, is there an audience out there for what he's selling?
Zaslav also complained that "one of the challenges in the business right now" is consumer confusion about where to find "the content that they love."
The executive says he expects greater consolidation within the streaming space, but suggested it would not necessarily come from mergers due to the lengthy timeline and regulatory risks involved, but rather from the packaging and marketing of products together.
“For me, it seems very clear that if we were to package this great product that we have with others, if you were to wake up tomorrow and in each market the number one, two or three products, if we were marketed with two or three, for specific price, it would be great for consumers, it would probably reduce churn,” Zaslav said.
Those comments sparked a number of "Zaslav reinvents the cable bundle," which is wrong on so many levels. But less attention was given to a couple of points that I think are important.
He seems to be pushing back ever so slightly against the belief by many investors (and industry reporters) that a Warner Bros. Discovery merger with Comcast or Paramount is in the future. He rightly notes that it's unlikely any such proposal could win regulatory approval. Aside from the very real problems integrating two massive media companies that each have competing holdings.
But as he spoke about the "packaging and marketing," he mentioned reducing churn, which was also a primary reason he gave for both the combining of HBO Max and Discovery+ as well as the upcoming reboot into Max. It's clear that churn is on his mind and that is something to focus on in the coming months. A new platform and some discounted specials will likely lower churn in the short term. But even though churn is a problem at most streaming services, Zaslav's public focus on it feels a bit like a warning.
The other thing to watch out for is how WBD pursues this "bundling" idea. I have heard from several people at the company that there had been talk on Max eventually rolling out some version of Amazon's channels. Cutting deals with streamers that would allow WBD to sell subscriptions and integrate the service into Max's UX. I'm not sure how far the discussions have gotten, but I do know that one big sticking point was that none of other major streamers were interested in giving the company direct access to their subscribers. And unlike Amazon, WBD doesn't have the industry juice to force the issue.
TWEET OF THE DAY
WHAT'S NEW FOR THURSDAY:
* Awake Series Premiere (Topic)
* CSI: Vegas Season Finale (CBS)
* Grey's Anatomy Season Finale (ABC)
* Isla Brava Series Premiere (Vix)
* I Survived Bear Grylls Series Premiere (TBS)
* Kitti Katz Series Premiere (Netflix)
* Modern Love Chennai (Prime Video)
* Mrs. Davis Season One Finale (Peacock)
* Prisoners Of War Series Premiere (Topic)
* Rainn Wilson And The Geography Of Bliss Series Premiere (Peacock)
* So Help Me Todd Season Finale (CBS)
* Station 19 Season Finale (ABC)
* The Ferragnez - The Series (Prime Video)
* The One Series Premiere (TV One)
* XO, Kitty Series Premiere (Netflix)
* Yakitori: Soldiers Of Misfortune Series Premiere (Netflix)
* Young Sheldon Season Finale (CBS)
Click Here to see the list of all of the upcoming premiere dates for the next few months.
SEE YOU FRIDAY!
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