WarnerMedia chief executive officer Jason Kilar, a year into the job, opened his first and last upfront presentation by acknowledging the impending merger with Discovery Inc. that will see him exit the company and put Discovery’s David Zaslav in charge of content at a new behemoth media company.
“With the important news made by both (WarnerMedia parent) AT&T and Discovery on Monday, together we will form a new company super serving our advertisers with the promise to unite WarnerMedia’s brands with Discovery’s brands all under one banner,” he said.
The brief opening message, which had Kilar in front a wall of framed photos featuring the company’s various shows, had the look and feel of a rush job. Acknowledging that the presentation to come was prerecorded, he added, “ours is a rapidly evolving industry and we are transforming with it. While there is so much more to come, for the moment, it’s business as usual.”
The highlight of the 75-minute pitch was Leslie Odom Jr.’s energetic walk-and-talk on a Warner Bros. soundstage that offered a primer on the company’s various networks — CNN, the so-called “T-nets” (TNT, TBS and TruTV), Cartoon Network, TCM — and a nostalgic look at the 100-year-old movie studio (complete with a “Singing In the Rain”-“Flashdance” mash-up dance number).
The centerpiece of the show was HBO Max, which will introduce a $9.99 ad-supported tier in June. And WarnerMedia ad sales chief JP Colaco reassured media buyers that Max would be a “brand safe” and “elegant” atmosphere for their messages.
The presentation was clearly meant to demonstrate the scale of the HBO Max offering from “Bugs Bunny” and “Sesame Street” to “Friends” and “Sex and the City” (and those programs’ upcoming reunion special and reboot, respectively) to “Lord of the Rings” and “Casablanca.”
Of course, the $43 billion deal hatched between AT&T chairman John Stankey and Zaslav over the last few months is all about creating scale in the rapidly evolving media landscape. Leaving Kilar (a veteran of Amazon and Hulu) odd man out in a game of CEO musical chairs, it returns control of the company to legacy media executives whose breadth of experience is very much linear television and the endangered cable bundle.
It also means that WarnerMedia employees will endure yet another merger less than three years after the AT&T-TimeWarner pact was consummated. A Tuesday afternoon all-hands employee town hall presided over by Stankey and chief financial officer Pascal Desroches and moderated by communications chief Christy Haubegger did not offer employees much reassurance that it would be a smooth ride, according to several sources who participated. Employees expressed concerns about what $3 billion in projected synergies could mean in terms of layoffs. Describing Stankey’s demeanor as “pretty defensive,” one participant noted what seemed like a failure on the part of Stankey — who earned $21 million in 2020 — to appreciate the concerns of employees worried about their livelihoods. Kilar, meanwhile, who is said to have engaged a team of lawyers to negotiate his exit, made more than $52 million last year.
The lame-duck CEO returned for the final segment of WarnerMedia’s upfront: a bit with Conan O’Brien, who announced on Monday that he will end his TBS late-night show on June 24 after 11 seasons, though he’ll have a weekly show on HBO Max. Both men were on hydraulic lifts wearing what were supposed to be parachute harnesses with O’Brien lamenting that he did not get to end the upfront by parachuting onto the stage. Kilar, a bit stiffly, tells him: “We figured you’d be happy to sit this one out.”
Then Kilar presses a button on his lift. As he disappears out of the frame, O’Brien yells: “I’ll call you with ideas!”